Basically the era where being thicker than a midget was a crime just because Africans happen to be thick. Sarah (Saartije) Baartman was a Khoisan (South African) woman who performed under the name “Hottentot Venus” in 19th century England and France. She is the original video vixen: discovered at home in South Africa during her late teens, she was offered money and fame in Europe as a singer and dancer. Little did she know that she would be exploited and put on display for everyone to gaze at her large butt, long clitoris/labia, small waist, big breast and kinky hair– all traits that are very common amongst Khoisan women. As her shows attracted more fans, she was forced against her will to have sex with men AND WOMEN who gave enough money to her exploiters. Sarah got none of the money, as she was once promised. After her act got old, she was forced into prostitution, where she died of std’s and alcoholism. The obsession with Saartije lasted after her death as well. For more than 100 years, visitors and “scientist” were able to examine her dissected body parts in Paris museums. The 19th century shapewear, the “bustle” was inspired by her in order to give european women her unique physique. Yes, an old school booty pop. On behalf of Nelson Mandela’s request, Paris returned Saartije’s remains to South Africa in 2002. Black men, it’s time that you start respecting the black woman’s body, because this act of objectifying it was taught to you. #sarahbaartman

Who is Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman? 

In 1810, when Saartjie Baartman was in her early twenties, she was persuaded by an English ship’s doctor, William Dunlop, to travel to England to make her fortune. However, as a Khoikhoi woman she was considered an anthropological freak in England, and she found herself put on exhibition, displayed as a sexual curiosity. Dubbed The Hottentot Venus, her image swept through British popular culture. Abolitionists unsuccessfully fought a court battle to free her from her exhibitors.

Saartjie Baartman was taken to Paris in 1814 and continued to be exhibited as a freak. She became the object of scientific and medical research that formed the bedrock of European ideas about black female sexuality. When she died in 1816, the Musee de l'Homme in Paris took a deathcast of her body, removed her skeleton and pickled her brain and genitals in jars. These were displayed in the museum until as late as 1985.

After five years of negotiating with the French authorities for the return of Saartjie Baartman’s remains, the South African government, together with the Griqua National Council which represents the country’s 200 000 Griqua people, part of the Koi-San group, brought Saartjie Baartman back to South Africa. On Friday 3 May 2002, in a moving ceremony attended by many representatives of the Khoikhoi people, Saartjie Baartman was welcomed back to Cape Town. Her final resting place is in the Eastern Cape, where she was born.


Ayana V Jackson, Sarah Baartman and the gaze on black bodies

By Stefanie Jason 

For her exhibition “Archival Impulse & Poverty Pornography”, Ayana V Jackson turns to the archives to touch on the representation of black bodies.

The flyers pasted around the cobbled streets of London beckoned passers-by to witness the “greatest phenomenon ever exhibited in this country”. Intrigued by the invitation and the word on the streets, curious Londoners flocked to the show to see what had just arrived in town. With bated breath and the two-shilling entry fee in hand, they arrived at Number 225 Piccadilly, to cast their eyes on the “Hottentot Venus”.

It was on such a day in 1810 that Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman – dressed in skin-tight clothes to best exhibit her posterior and genitalia – was put on display like a captured animal. And it is this memory of the black body as a source of spectacle and “othering” from the days of colonial expansion that gave birth to artist Ayana V Jackson’s latest body of work, Archival Impulse & Poverty Pornography.  [Continue reading article and get more information about the exhibit at The Mail & Guardian.]

A 20-year-old girl from South Africa known as Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman was recruited to work in a Paris zoo because of a genetic characteristic known as steatopygia – protuberant buttocks and elongated labia. Whites went to the zoo to look at her buttocks and at other naked Black women with the same shape.

Gawking with desire: since forever and today.


According to popular history, Baartman was born in 1789 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa. When she was barely in her 20s, she was sold to London by an enterprising Scottish doctor named Alexander Dunlop, accompanied by a showman named Hendrik Cesars. She spent four years in Britain being exhibited. Her treatment caught the attention of British abolitionists, who tried to rescue her, but she claimed that she had come to London on her own accord.
Baartman lived on in poverty, and died in Paris of illness in December 1815. After her death, Cuvier dissected her body, then displayed her remains. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the “Museum of Man” in Paris could view her brain and skeleton until she was peacefully laid to rest.


Saartjie “Sarah” Baartmans (Hottentot Venus) story part 1 

Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman(before 1790 – 29 December 1815) (also spelled Bartman, Bartmann, Baartmen) was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak showattractions in 19th-century Europe under the nameHottentot Venus—”Hottentot” as the then-current name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term,  and “Venus” in reference to the Roman goddess of love.

Southern Africa

Sarah Baartman was born to a Khoisan family in the vicinity of the Gamtoos River in what is now the Eastern Cape of South Africa.  She was orphaned in a commando raid that killed all of her family.  Saartjie, pronounced “Sahr-kee”, is the diminutiveform of her name; in Afrikaans the use of the diminutive form commonly indicates familiarity, endearment or contempt. Her birth name is unknown. 

Baartman became a slave of a Dutch farmer named Peter Cezar nearCape Town, which had recently come under British control. Alexander Dunlop, a military surgeon with a sideline in supplying showmen in Britain with animal specimens, suggested she travel to England for exhibition. Lord Caledon, governor of the Cape, gave permission for the trip, but later regretted it after he fully learned the purpose of the trip.  She left for London in 1810.

Great Britain

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A caricature of Baartman drawn in the early 19th century

Baartman was exhibited first in London, entertaining people because of her “exotic” origin and by showing what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features. She had large buttocks (steatopygia) and also the elongated labia of some Khoisan women. To quotehistorian of science Stephen Jay Gould, “The labia minora, or inner lips, of the ordinary female genitalia are greatly enlarged in Khoi-San women, and may hang down three or four inches below the vulva when women stand, thus giving the impression of a separate and enveloping curtain of skin”.  Baartman never allowed this trait to be exhibited while she was alive,  and an account of her appearance in London in 1810 makes it clear that she was wearing a garment, although a tight-fitting one. 

Her exhibition in London, scant years after the passing of the Slave Trade Act 1807, created a scandal. An abolitionist benevolent society called the African Association – the equivalent of a charity or pressure group – conducted a newspaper campaign for her release. The showman associated with her exhibition, Hendrick Cezar  in an answer protested that Baartman was entitled to earn her living by this means: “…has she not as good a right to exhibit herself as an Irish Giant or a Dwarf?”.  The African Association took the matter to court and on 24 November 1810 at the Court of King’s Bench the Attorney-General began the attempt ‘to give her liberty to say whether she was exhibited by her own consent’. In support he produced two affidavits in court. The first, from a Mr Bullock  of Liverpool Museum, was intended to show Baartman had been brought to Britain by persons who referred to her as if she were property. The second, by the Secretary of the African Association, described the degrading conditions under which she was exhibited and also gave evidence of coercion.  Baartman was questioned before an attorney in Dutch, in which she was fluent, via interpreters. She stated that she was not under restraint, did not wish to return to her family and understood perfectly that she was guaranteed half of the profits. The case was therefore dismissed. She was questioned for three hours without anyone connected with her exhibition being present; however the conditions under which she made these statements are suspect, because her declaration directly contradicts accounts of her exhibitions made by Zachary Macaulay of the African Institution and other eyewitnesses.  A written contract  was also produced by Dunlop, though this is considered by some modern commentators as a legal subterfuge. 

The publicity given by the court case increased Baartman’s popularity as an exhibit.  She later toured other parts of Britain and visited Ireland.  On 1 December 1811 Baartman was christened at Manchester Cathedral. 


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Illustration of Baartman fromIllustrations de Histoire naturelle des mammifères

Baartman was sold to a Frenchman, who took her to his country. She was in France from around September 1814. An animal trainer, S. Réaux, exhibited her under more pressured conditions for fifteen months. French naturalists, among them Georges Cuvier, head keeper of the menagerie at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, visited her. She was the subject of several scientific paintings at the Jardin du Roi, where she was examined in March 1815: as Saint-Hilaire  and Frédéric Cuvier, a younger brother of Georges, reported, “she was obliging enough to undress and to allow herself to be painted in the nude.” In accordance with her own cultural norms of modesty,  throughout these sessions she wore a small apron-like garment which concealed her genitalia. She steadfastly refused to remove this even when offered money by one of the attending scientists.  It has been alleged that once her novelty had worn thin with Parisians, she began to drink heavily and support herself with prostitution. ]Baartman however had refused payment to allow scientists to observe her genitals in spring 1815, suggesting she both had her own standards of modesty and was not destitute at that time: and as a French paper  carried the usual advertisements for her show only a week prior to her death, she may always have been able to support herself without recourse to prostitution.

Death and legacy

She died on 29 December 1815 of an undetermined inflammatory ailment, possibly smallpox,  while other sources suggest she contractedsyphilis,  or pneumonia. An autopsy was conducted, and published by French anatomist Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville in 1816 and republished by French naturalist Georges Cuvier in the Memoires du Museum d’Histoire Naturelle in 1817. Cuvier notes in his monograph that its subject was an intelligent woman with an excellent memory, particularly for faces. In addition to her native tongue she spoke fluent Dutch, passable English and a smattering of French. He describes her shoulders and back as “graceful”, arms “slender”, hands and feet as “charming” and “pretty”. He adds she was adept at playing the jew’s harp  could dance according to the traditions of her country and had a lively personality. Despite this he interpreted her remains, in accordance with his theories on racial evolution, as evidencing ape-like traits. He thought her small ears were similar to those of anorangutan and also compared her vivacity, when alive, to the quickness of a monkey.  Her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were placed on display in Paris’ Musée de l’Homme until 1974, when they were removed from public view and stored out of sight; a cast was still shown for the following two years.

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Last resting place of Saartjie Baartman, on a hill overlooking Hankey in the Gamtoos River Valley, Eastern Cape, South Africa

There were sporadic calls for the return of her remains, beginning in the 1940s. A poem written in 1978 by Diana Ferrus, herself of Khoisan descent, entitled “I’ve come to take you home”, played a pivotal role in spurring the movement to bring Baartman’s remains back to her birth soil. The case gained world-wide prominence only after Stephen Jay Gould wrote The Hottentot Venus in the 1980s. After the victory of the African National Congress in the South African general election, 1994, President Nelson Mandela formally requested that France return the remains. After much legal wrangling and debates in the French National Assembly, France acceded to the request on 6 March 2002. Her remains were repatriated to her homeland, the Gamtoos Valley, on 6 May 2002  and they were buried on 9 August 2002 on Vergaderingskop, a hill in the town of Hankey over 200 years after her birth. 

Baartman became an icon in South Africa as representative of many aspects of the nation’s history. The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children,  a refuge for survivors of domestic violence, opened in Cape Town in 1999. South Africa’s first offshore environmental protection vessel, the Sarah Baartman, is also named after her. 

Click here for part 2.


Europe is Just As Racist with a History of Dehumanizing, and Brutalizing Africans/Black People

Sarah Baartman, remains were returned and laid to rest in her homeland 187 yrs later. She was put on display to further Europeans racist “scientific” ideology that Africans/blacks were inferior to them, and oversexed. Her naked body was displayed in “freak shows”, and “exhibits” for the European gaze. She died at the age of 25.
Georges Cuvier, a French so called scientist, made a plaster cast of her body, then removed her skeleton and, after removing her brain and genitals, pickled them and displayed them in bottles at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.
Some 160 years later they were still on display, but were finally removed from public view in 1974. In 1994, then president Nelson Mandela requested that her remains be brought home. It took the French government eight years to pass a bill – apparently worded so as to prevent other countries from claiming the return of their stolen treasures – to allow their small piece of “scientific curiosity” to be returned to South Africa.

The way she was treated sickens me. The fact that France returned her body only recently is revolting.
You displayed pieces of her body until 1974. And kept it, for what? That fact that the French called pieces of her body their treasures? And we’re afraid that the British or other nations may lay claim to this “treasure”. Her story is heartbreaking. I can’t believe they had her remains for 187 yrs. I don’t want to ever hear again from Europeans about their own fucked up racist fascist white supremacist history not existing. That is bullshit. What happened to Sarah Baartman is horrifying.


Painful Cake [TRIGGER WARNING for anti-black racism, misogyny, simulation of cannibalism/genital cutting]

remember Sarah Baartman?

this is the most disgusting, ridiculous, racist, misogynist, psychotic thing i’ve seen in 2012.

They called me "Hottentot Venus", I pray that you call me Inspiration.

Dear Sons and Daughters of the Sun,

           If a wolf cries boy will the tears matter? Will the agony echoed through the wolf’s howl be muffled by the unforgiving beast of fear that lives within the hearts of mankind? Will the big bad wolf’s story ever be told? The story of how she so gallantly fought against hunters to protect her offspring and her legacy. Will her truth be buried with her memory and replaced by fables and fairytales of her monstrous instincts?  

          I remember the very last tear that fell from my eyes, I named her Amour. I gently asked that she would never leave me. She was the closest feeling to love that I had felt in many years. When I parted ways with Amour I knew that I was also saying goodbye to life. My story is like that of the wolf who cried boy, rarely ever told and sadly misunderstood. My cry for help was also hushed by fear. Unlike the wolf I was a human being. It never mattered that I too dreamed of happiness. In the eyes of my alleged superiors I was an animal. If I only knew I also had a legacy to protect I wouldn’t have felt so alone. For almost 200 years I’ve felt the piercing deception of history’s pin poking at my memory. I just want to rest peacefully now.

           To the sons and daughters of Europe I was a freak of nature, to nature I was simply a woman. I was a product of her beauty and a reflection of her wonders. I wasn’t some mutation of normality placed on this earth to be subjected to their ignorance. The way that I was created made me no more of a freak than the actions of my secret admirers. Their eyes spoke truths their mouths would never admit to.  I wasn’t inferior, I was bewilderingly beautiful. They publicly gawked but privately longed to ignite the fires of my passion. They desired to understand my curvaceous body so they sought to simplify the complexity of my composition. I was labeled inferior because the wonders of my ambiguity could not be tamed. I was a woman, emotional yet strong and ready to love eternally. I was no different from their mothers or even their daughters. I had dreams; I loved and longed to live happily. I was more than images of a hypersexual primitive beast exhibited as a part of a freak show. I am Sarah Baartman and my memory lives on through you.

          According to history’s ink I am the “Hottentot Venus”, a Khoisan woman from South Africa whose body was a freak attraction placed on display throughout London and France. I was a slave in Cape Town, South Africa before being “discovered” by a ship surgeon and persuaded to travel to London. I was caged and placed on display for starving eyes to feast upon. Stripped of my pride, I stood there naked before audiences of lustful citizens who claimed to be superior. My buttocks and genitals, which they viewed as abnormally large, became objects of their fascination. Even though I was subjected to extreme humiliation history’s pen is sure to inform you that this was of my free will. The notion that I willingly exploited by body as if I enjoyed it only perpetuates the stereotype of the oversexed primitive black woman. From London to Paris my body was exhibited as if I weren’t human. I eventually turned to a life of prostitution and died at age 25 of inflammatory and eruptive sickness, some say syphilis. Even after my death my genitals and other parts of my body were pickled and displayed in bottles at La Musee de l’Homme in Paris. For 160 years my body parts were exhibited for audiences to indulge in my exploitation. Just recently my remains were returned to my homeland and properly buried.

          Since the day I said goodbye to the earth I have been unable to rest in peace. I can’t help to feel as if I’m still on display with every image of degradation I see being produced and consumed in the world today. Imagine being naked in a cage and placed on display for all to watch. Remove the cage and change the early 1800’s to the new millennium and not much has changed. Women of color are still being publicly degraded and subjugated. With each flash of exploitation you are stomping on the memories of those who came before you. The exploitation may not always be in the form of sexual subjectivity. Today, the perpetuation of stereotypes depicted on what you call “reality television” seems to be the greatest exploitation.  I see women who have acquired fame through simply selling sex when I know that they have other talents, and more importantly a brain. Not only black women are degraded, however I feel as if we are still the least appreciated. I see women who neither look like me or you receiving high praise for their curves when we’ve carried the blessing since the beginning of time. Sometimes it makes me laugh, but it’s not long until my laughter turn into tears.

           I simply ask that you remember me. My question for you is who will you let write the story of your life? What will the world remember you by?  According to history I was a freak of nature who willingly walked into the circus of exploitation to be the subject of ridicule and freakish infatuation. The world will never know the thoughts that crossed my mind as I traveled to Europe. They’ll never know why I participated in such cruel and inhumane practices. The reason is simply because I never wrote my own story. My story has been told by a stranger who never met me. Now my story is his, they call it history. Black women, I ask that you own your story. I ask that you write each and every sentence and close this chapter of degradation. Some may call me the very first “Vixen”. If I knew how you would have been impacted I probably would have fought a little longer to stay alive. I would have fought a little harder to write my own story for you to read. I would have fought for the world to see that our bodies are to be celebrated and not subjugated. This is why I still cannot rest in peace.

           I wrote this letter for all daughters of the sun to remember me. If you have never learned of my story I am now here to share. We can’t rely on strangers to tell the story of our lives. I want you to know that you were blessed with supernatural beauty. Black women your makings are a work of art. I want you to embrace your skin in all of its diversity. From the deepest sun kissed coatings to the brightest reflections of light I want your beauty to be celebrated.  From the fullness of your lips to the secrets that hide in the crevices of your brilliance I want you to be celebrated. I want you to love yourself so much that you never place a price on your beauty. I want you to be remembered for the changes you’ve made in the world. I want you to be remembered for the hearts you’ve touched and the lives you’ve inspired. Learn from my story. Think of me when you chose your movie roles. Think of me before allowing a television network to capitalize off of your misunderstood ways. Think of me as you dominate sports, the corporate world, law and medicine. Entertainment is not the only path that leads to the fulfillment of your dreams. When the world places labels on you I want you to stand proudly and proclaim, I am __________ ________ and I am BEAUTIFUL. You deserve to be loved and admired; you don’t deserve to be exploited. Your mind can take you places that your body can only follow.

           I also wrote this letter for every black man. I want the world to see that while you too have bodies resembling classical architecture your minds are far more intriguing. I want you to show the world that not only can you dominate sports but you can also dominate business.  Aspire to own the brands that have established extreme wealth off of your unprecedented skills. I want you to take the hustle developed on the street corners to the boardrooms and establish your presence. Establish empires of excellence that the fruits of your labor will one day enjoy. Always remember how important it is to celebrate and understand black women. In every black woman you should see your mother, sister or daughter and show respect. Even when you find a black woman who has never learned how to respect herself treat her with respect and set that standard. Don’t allow yourself to be degraded to dogs through the exploitation of your women by calling them “bitches”. You are a king, always remember that. You don’t have to be a pawn in the ploy to eradicate the strength of the black family. There is no image more serene than that of black love. For every black woman that is degraded you are also degraded. Black man I ask that you learn how to love the black woman again. With that being said, black women I ask that you allow yourselves to be loved. Write your very own love story and paste it to the sky.  I encourage you to write stories that your great grandchildren will be proud to share. Love each other and build each other up. Don’t allow history to label you as the wolf that everyone feared or as the primitive beast that needed salvation. You are the living legacy of Kings and Queens who have walked this earth before you. March on, march with love.  Always remember me.

Love, Sarah Baartman

Remember Sarah Baartman

from my media justice column

This is the tenth anniversary of Sarah Baartman (also known as Saartjie Baartman)  being returned to her home in South Africa. Sarah is an important woman to me because she reminds me of how bodies of Color, bodies that are feminine, and the sexuality of Black and African women remain devalued in the world we live in today. If you do not know Sarah’s legacy I’ll share a bit of it with you here. 

Sarah Baartman was a Khoisian woman from South Africa. Born in the late 1780s (yes, you read that correctly), Sarah was a member of the Khoikhoi community. In 1810 an English doctor on a ship, William Dunlop, met her and convinced her to travel to Europe with him. She agreed and Dunlop took her with him to Europe where she was put on display for others to view and given the name “The Hottentot Venus.” Her body shape and size was seen as oddly disfigured by Europeans and Dunlop. The reality was that her body shape and size were very much characteristics of her being a member of her community and thus not that odd. 

From an outsider’s perspective she was seen as having extremely large buttocks and genitals and it was these parts of her body that were on display for those in Europe to view, for a price. Each person who wanted to see the body of Sarah, who was marketed as a “freak” paid a price to an animal trainer who “managed” her. We do not know if Sarah was given any of this money. Her body and life on display became a part of the foundation that created the scientific and anthropological theories about African sexualities, Black bodies, and difference that are still present today. 

After four years in Europe she went to France where scientist William Cuvier became interested in her for the same reasons Dunlop was. Her “showings” were extremely popular and several images and cartoons were created about her presence in Europe and France. You can see some of those images here. It is believed Sarah may have become a sex worker in order to survive once the doctors lost interest in her. Being in a foreign country with different climate, illnesses, and hygienic expectations, Sarah died of an infection of which people now believe could have been syphilis. 

When Sarah died, her body was taken by a museum in Paris: the Musee de l’Homme.  At the museum a cast of her body was created, her brain and genitals removed and “preserved,” and her skeleton all put on display. Again. In the museum. For over 150 years after her death, the museum had her on public display. Some believe it was 1974 that she was removed from public display, others 1985, either way it was well over a century. 

Even though her body was no longer on public display, the museum kept her body in their archives. When President Nelson Mandela requested her body be returned in 1994, it took 8 years for an agreement. In May 2002 her body was returned to South Africa and buried August 9, 2002 on South Africa’s Women’s Day. 

Now you know a bit about Sarah Baartman’s life (please don’t refer to her as the derogatory name “Hottentot Venus”). When we discussed this in the course I’m teaching about women, art, and culture, my students were shocked. They were shocked that this went on for so long, many stating how they were born only a few short years after she was taken off of public display. Others questioned why there was resistance by the museum in returning her to South Africa. We had a great conversation about what museums represent, who they represent, and what and how are certain people, things, and topics considered art.

Many folks have used her legacy and life as a force for change, activism, and new forms of media and art. For example, in 1998 Khoisian activist and scholar Diana Ferrus wrote “A Poem for Sarah Baartman”  that many believe led to the agreement to send her body home and was read when her body was handed over at the South African embassy in Paris. Her poem is below:

I’ve come to take you home – 
home, remember the veld? 
the lush green grass beneath the big oak trees 
the air is cool there and the sun does not burn. 
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill, 
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint, 
the proteas stand in yellow and white 
and the water in the stream chuckle sing-songs 
as it hobbles along over little stones.

I have come to wretch you away – 
away from the poking eyes 
of the man-made monster 
who lives in the dark 
with his clutches of imperialism 
who dissects your body bit by bit 
who likens your soul to that of Satan 
and declares himself the ultimate god!

I have come to soothe your heavy heart 
I offer my bosom to your weary soul 
I will cover your face with the palms of my hands 
I will run my lips over lines in your neck 
I will feast my eyes on the beauty of you 
and I will sing for you 
for I have come to bring you peace.

I have come to take you home 
where the ancient mountains shout your name. 
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill, 
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint, 
the proteas stand in yellow and white – 
I have come to take you home 
where I will sing 
for you for you have brought me peace.

I think it’s interesting that as I’ve written this article in a word processing program on my computer, that Sarah’s first name of “Saartjie” and last name were highlighted as being spelled incorrectly, when the names of the two doctors: William Dunlop and William Cuvier, were both recognized and not ever highlighted for misspellings. This is a great example of the normalization of such practices based on white supremacy and eugenics and the erasure of the lives of women of Color and of Sarah Baartman’s. 

It is this same erasure that many of us are fighting to end. Some ways to challenge the erasure and invisibility is by sharing her legacy, asking questions, creating knowledge, healing, and seeing the connections of injustice and fighting to end them. Read more aboutSarah Baartman’s life and if you are interested encourage your school or local library to purchase the two films about her life by Swazi filmmaker Zola Maseko  “The Life and Times of Sarah Baartman” and “The Return of Sarah Baartman.” 

I’m writing this post, sharing it with my community online, teaching about her life and legacy, and discussing it with people in my life. I’m reminding all of the people of Color in my life they are loved and their bodies their own. What will you do to remember Sarah Baartman?


This history lesson via video has been making its way around the Internet quite a bit over the past week or so. The case is a sad one for sure. A woman was taken from her homeland. After being taken from her homeland she was transported to a distant and unfamiliar land. In this distant and unfamiliar land, she was made a public and medical spectacle due to innate physical traits including her skin color. The novelty of her physical traits to a European public was used as justification for slavery and a bevy of other racist practices due to the perceived inferiority and non-humanity of those of her race.

All this is true, angering, and inexcusable. However, comparing the story of “Sarah Baartman” to video vixens of today is inaccurate and ignores major differences between the predicaments of “Sarah Baartman” and those of ladies who are in music videos today.

Firstly, there is the issue of consent. Whereas “Sarah” was taken from her homeland through, at best, coercion and, at worst, outright kidnapping video vixens have given their consent to participate in music videos. They are not the slaves of an invading Dutch colonial class. For a variety of reasons young ladies today choose to dance, model, or act in music videos.

Secondly, there is the issue of professional treatment. “Sarah” was literally treated like an animal. Displayed in cages at human zoos, poked and prodded by medical personnel and operated on even after her death. She was not regarded as a professional employee. Video vixens are treated highly differently in that they are not only often displayed in luxurious surroundings (nightclub VIP sections, poolside, on beaches, in luxury cars, etc.), they are given trailers to relax in while on video shoots, and employed for a finite time–not indefinitely.

Thirdly, there is the issue of compensation. “Sarah Baartman” was not compensated for the job she performed. As a slave, this was not even in the question and if anyone was compensated for her troubles it was either her owner or the doctor who first noticed her in southern Africa and devised the idea to bring her to Europe for continued exploitation. On the low end, up and coming models make a few hundred dollars a day though established video vixens can command up to $5000 for a video shoot. Supermodels or A-list actresses who decided to get in front of the lens of a music video can make even more–upwards of $15,000 a day. 

Finally, there is the issue of leverage. “Sarah” did not transition into any career after her time in Europe. She died there from European diseases around the age of 26. She did not support her family with her work nor use it as a springboard to follow her actual life pursuits. Video vixens such as Karrine Steffans have become best-selling authors. Melyssa Ford has transitioned into an acting career in television and film. Jennifer Lopez, rarely thought of as a video vixen, is now arguably the most influential Latina in the world and amongst the wealthiest. Each have transitioned into better-paying and more highly regarded field despite their career launchpads in rap and R&B videos.

To be clear, I find it sad and disappointing that so many young ladies who aspire to enter the entertainment business do so through these means. I’m not a female but I imagine that it is a demeaning profession and that the compensation they derive is paltry in comparison to the short and long-term damage to themselves and other women as a group. Aforementioned video vixens Karrine Steffans and Melyssa Ford are now strong critics of the profession. However, let us recognize the difference between those situations and the situation that “Sarah” found herself in for the her far too short life.

* Quotation marks added due to her original, Khoisian name being unknown.

Mama Baartman sees Janet at the Superbowl

…and I write Justin Timberlake a letter on her behalf

Dear Justin,

I know you didn’t mean to

but when Janet faced us

breast out

flashing lights,

Saartjie shook against the walls of her coffin

reached up to cover her own breasts with her hands.

I know you didn’t mean to, Justin

but Mama Baartman still

has nightmares about stages.

She knows you can feel naked

with your clothes still on.

She’s tired. She wants to sleep,

but when she saw the Superbowl

she had flashbacks of Paris.

You are giving her nightmares.

She was buried 187 years after she died. 

Her bones have been spread across the globe.

She just wants to sleep.

We have to let her sleep.

- Jacqui G.