Stephanie Daniels, Features Editor
February, the month that has been carved out for the celebration of Black History here in America. Each year, we take out the time to celebrate not only the successes in the Black community, but also acknowledge the sacrifices made. Interestingly enough, there are several times when individuals have both sacrificed and gained headway. Sometimes, not all successes result in laws passed or a new invention, but they serve as a story for those who would come after. A story and lesson of self love and an understanding and appreciation for what we had to go through as a people.
One story of such triumph, an inspiration for all Black women here in America, is the story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman. Baartman, born to South Africa in what was believed to be 1789, was enslaved by a Dutch farmer near Cape Town, and then sent on the road as an exhibit to the white elite. She soon became a spectacle due to her African features; wide hips, pronounced buttocks, and even her most intimate parts, her labia. She spent a copious amount of time in London; there, it was estimated that she was placed in “freak shows” and exhibitions upward to 200 times. White people would show up to see for themselves what the community was talking about. Very quickly, she became a spectacle, as her white counterparts found her features unusual and fascinating.
Soon, though, things took a very drastic turn for Baartman. A Frenchman and animal trainer by the name of Reaux saw her during one of her exhibitions and bought her shortly after. Under the Frenchman, Sarah was placed in cages next to animals, where her “trainer” would order her to sit and stand like the animals in cages surrounding her. While in these degrading shows, Baartman was forced to be almost naked, but fought for the ability to wear a garment covering her most sacred female area.
As if being an almost naked spectacle wasn’t enough, Baartman soon became the center of observations by French anatomists, zoologists and physiologists. Within his “findings,” naturalist George Cuvier made the assertion that there was a link between animals and humans, a link we still see until this day. This assertion was used to further propel the narrative that African people were oversexed and an inferior race.
All of these events took place while Baartman was still very young. She died at the age of 26 and wasn’t afforded peace even in her death. Shortly after her passing, naturalist Cuvier made a reappearance, obtaining and dissecting her remains. He preserved her brain and genitalia in jars like you would a lab specimen and placed them on display in the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris, France until 1974.
In contrast to the experience of humiliation, degradation and pure inhumane treatment, Sarah did find her peace after death. Her community in Africa did not forget her, and President Nelson Mandela ordered for the French government to return her remains back to Africa for a proper burial. After taking a distinct amount of time to carefully choose their words in a bill drafted to protect them from other “treasures” being taken from them by other countries, they returned her remains March 6, 2002.
Baartman’s story is a testimony. It shows black women the pain and struggle that was brought upon their ancestors. What grounds this even more so in 2019 is the state of social media and media entirely. The black female form could not be more hyper sexualized and appropriated. The same women who identify with a culture that has forever in history used our bodies to prove their own superiority, are appropriating the very tool that was used to do so. We see them getting surgeries to enlarge their backsides and placing suction cups on their lips to “plump” them before applying makeup. This hits a very sore chord because those who have appropriated have no idea what black women have had to go through. The curves of the black body have been exploited throughout history, leaving black women with a high price to pay. Sexual abuse, placed on the road as an act, and even having their genitals on display in a museum.
The black woman’s body is not a commodity, it is not for sale, and it is not a one way ticket to popularity. It is sacred, it is holy, and it is one that has come with a deep price that only black women have had to pay.