The Tale of Hottentot Venus and the Monsters Who Created Her

For the month of October, I will be doing a series of real-life scary stories. We teach children that monsters are things that go bump in the night, but the truth is that monsters are people. Much like the stories of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, monsters are our own creations. All the stories in this series will be true, which makes them even scarier.

The year is 1810 and you are a slave in Cape Town, South Africa. Both of your parents have died, your partner was murdered by a colonizer, and your child has died. You are alone in a world, that has been created to treat you as sub-human. You cannot read or write but are somehow able to sign a contract stating that you will go to England and be a performer. You might be excited about the chance of a new life, a life that is better than the one you are living now. You get to England only to discover that you will be paraded around naked so that white people can look at your body and touch you without your consent. The British doctor, William Dunlop, and the businessman Hendrik Cesars who tricked you have labeled you the “Hottentot Venus.” They have stripped you of your identity and dignity. As a Black woman, you are believed to be promiscuous. What other reason would justify why you have such a large buttock?  You would die 5 years later, but your body would be dissected and displayed in a Paris museum until 1974. What was left of your remains, would not be brought home to South Africa until 2002. Your name is Sarah Baartman. You are deemed a monster, but the people who gawk at you misunderstand that they are the monsters.

            Fast forward to 2014, and a celebrity by the name of Kim Kardashian poses for a magazine depicting images of what Sarah Baartman endured. She is smiling to the camera seemingly unaware of the pain and disrespect that this image is portraying to millions of Black women all over the world. Women who have been ostracized, fetished, and degraded for their bodies. Bodies that are now deemed desirable if those features are not on Black bodies. In a society that thrives on white supremacy, where do I and millions of other Black women fit in? 

            Sarah Baartman’s life is not just a scary story. It is a true story of the worst parts of humanity. The part that refuses to see anyone that is different or other as a monster. Yet how many people have never heard her story? How many people saw the cover with Kim Kardashian and did not understand the pain behind it? We choose to not teach our children their history, because we say it will be too painful, too hard for them to understand. But the truth is we do not value the lives of Black and Brown people. We do not value their stories, and we do not want to answer the questions that are children will ask us? If you value my life, why don’t you value the lives of kids held in cages along the US-Mexican border? Why don’t you value the lives of the thousands of Black men and women who are continually killed by the police? 

            Though Sarah’s story would seem to be about sex, at its root is the dehumanization of Black people that continues to this day. We are expected to perform for white people but we cannot show any emotion or have any opinions. After Michelle Obama gave her speech at the DNC, she was deemed angry and an attack-dog. She has every right to be angry after watching the country that she and her husband served for eight years fall apart before her eyes. So, white people did what they always do, they dehumanized her. When George Floyd was murdered before our eyes, the media tried to find every way they could to justify what we saw. He was on drugs, he was a bad father, he was paying with counterfeit money. None of these offenses are worth dying over. For White Supremacy to take root, you must make everyone around you feel even smaller than you already feel. 

            The root of White Supremacy is fear. Fear of anyone that looks different to you and who you might not understand. When white colonizers first landed on what is now the continent of Africa, they looked around at a people and a culture that was different than theirs and decided that instead of trying to understand that the world is a bigger place than they had thought, they deemed anyone who was unlike them as savage. Black and Brown people would spend the rest of history as we have known it, trying to make the world see us as humans. The media perpetuates white supremacy, by giving it a stage and by allowing these painful stereotypes to be played repeatedly. 

            I want to live in a world where Sarah Baartman’s story is a thing of the past. But I think the only way for us to move forward is to speak the truth. We must be honest with ourselves about the pain that has been inflicted and continues to be inflicted by those in power. And those in power are white people.  One day as I was looking at my skin and marveling at the beauty of my complexion, it dawned on me that I am not the one with the problem. When I wake up in the morning, this is who I am; it is not until I walk outside my door that I am reminded of the world that we live in. James Baldwin said, “It is not a racial problem. It is a problem of whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it.” For us to build a better world than the ones our parents and grandparents left us, those in power must look at the ways that they have benefited from the status quo and decide how they will change it. We must hold the media responsible when they continue to uphold negative stereotypes and we must be willing to do the painful but necessary work to look our demons in the face. It’s time we stop telling our children that monsters don’t exist, because they do. All we must do is look around us. 

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