Beasts of no idiotic man
Have you heard of Sara Baartman?
Easy to take for granted that most Africans would have heard the name, or at least her alias Hottentot Venus. If you haven’t heard of her yet though, brace yourself.
Sara Baartman was the best known of at least two South African Khoikhoi women who, due to their large behinds, were exhibited as a freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus—”Hottentot” was the name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term, and “Venus” referred to the Roman goddess of love.
In 1810, she went to England with her employer, a free black man called Hendrik Cesars, and William Dunlop, an English doctor who worked at the Cape slave lodge. The two men sought to show her for money on the London stage and Baartman spent four years on stage in England and Ireland.Her treatment on the Piccadilly stage was so appalling that it caught the attention of British abolitionists, who argued that her performance was indecent and that she was being forced to perform against her will. Ultimately, the court ruled in favour of her exhibition after Dunlop produced a contract made between himself and Baartman – possibly a fake document produced for the purposes of the trial.
In 1814, after Dunlop’s death, a man called Henry Taylor brought Baartman to Paris and sold her to an animal trainer, S. Reaux, who made her amuse onlookers who frequented the Palais-Royal. Not only was she further humiliated on stage but she was also raped and impregnated by him as an experiment. Her child, named Okurra Reaux, passed at age 5 of an unknown disease.Georges Cuvier, founder and professor of comparative anatomy at the Museum of Natural History, examined Baartman as he searched for proof of a so-called missing link between animals and human beings.
Cuvier is the same naturalist who wrote of black people:
“The Negro race… is marked by black complexion, crisped or woolly hair, compressed cranium and a flat nose. The projection of the lower parts of the face, and the thick lips, evidently approximate it to the monkey tribe: the hordes of which it consists have always remained in the most complete state of barbarism”.
The European fascination with her didn’t end with her death in 1815. Cuvier dissected her body and displayed her remains. For more than a century and a half, visitors to the Museum of Man in Paris could view her brain, skeleton and genitalia as well as a plaster cast of her body. It wasn’t until 2002 when her remains where returned to South Africa.
For anyone familiar with Baartman’s woeful tale, the idea of a black woman’s physique scrutinised with a perverted Caucasian gaze curious to find a link with the animal world is disgusting.
The monkey analogy dates back to way earlier than Baartman’s time though, to be more specific, This comparison became racial in the 17th century, when French philosopher Jean Bodin wrote of Africa as “a hotbed of monsters, arising from the sexual union of humans and animals” – i.e. insinuating that Africa was an evil and treacherous place inhabited by human-animal hybrids.
Between the mid-1600s and early 1800s, the world of science had received the racist memo too. Western scientists were obsessed with ranking and hierarchy between different ethnic groups, and commonly made comparisons between perceived similarity in physical characteristics between humans and non-human primates.
By the 19th century, the idea of the black race’s link to primates was set in stone. Darwinist Ernst Haeckel wrote that “Negroes” have stronger and more freely movable toes than any other race, and thus are more closely related to non-human primates, defining them as “four-handed apes”. This way of thinking was crucial to eugenicists and colonisers – and served to equate blackness with being animal and “uncivilised”.
Sadly the thought perpetuated through the 20th century well into the 21st – the 1931 false conviction of Scottsboro Boys, a group of nine black teenagers accused of having raped two white women being so closely aligned to the release of the King Kong movie in news reports, the Windrush generation of Caribbeans who came over to the UK between 1948 and 1970 being mocked by monkey sounds, the countless football players of African descent who’ve had banana peels thrown at them on the fields across Europe.
Then there is of course, the Facebook post by then West Virginia county worker Pamela Ramsey in November 2016 which compared then-First Lady Michelle Obama to an “ape in heels”. The high street label H&M landing in hot water in 2018 after they made the the inconceivable mistake of making a black boy model a hoodie that read “coolest monkey in the jungle”.
Seeing now, we are all up to date with the history of black bodies likened to bestial being, the last insult in the long chain of insults comes in the form of foolish words from a black man. You can understand the backlash against Clippers’ Patrick Patterson who referred to a fellow black man’s wife as a ‘bulldog’ while defending his own relationship with a Caucasian woman.
There is just so much wrong with this insult – where to even begin… Firstly, why insult a man’s wife, regardless of her colour, because you’re having a debate with her husband? If you’re man enough, settle your score like a man without calling names when your ego is bruised.Then there is the ‘bulldog’ comment of course. Patterson backtracked real fast after his faux pas by issuing an apology on Instagram where he explained his comment ‘bulldog’ wasn’t in relation to black women in general but the commenter’s wife. Not that this should make it any better… One black woman insulted and compared to an animal is one too many.
Is it perhaps about time instead of being rewarded with scholarships, million-dollar deals, flashy cars, and white women, some of these black elite athletes were first educated on the history of black suffering across the centuries so when they open their mouth to throw playground insults, they think twice.
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