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Who was Ssehura/Sartjee/Saartje/Saat-je/Saartji/Saat-Jee/Saartjie/Sara(h) ?

someshine's picture



A Poem For Sarah Baartman

by Diana Ferrus

listen to her reading

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 first heard of Sarah in my seminar with Professor Tracey Hucks about the writings of women of African descent. As an Africana Studies concentrator also interested in Gender and Sexuality studies, I was excited by the opportunity to read critical race theory, feminist and queer theory, and autobiographical pieces that African and African American women shared with the world of academia. For the first time, I read the works of Beverly Guy-Scheftall, Alice Walker, bell hooks, and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. One of the most significant insights I came away with that semester was the reality that no institution has supported or currently supports black women in America. The physically and emotionally violent past on the continent of Africa during imperialism and colonialism has had unsettling, rippling effects on the ways in which we think we see and/or know and/or understand black women today. 

Sarah entered my seminar’s conversation during our unit on the historical tracing of representations of black women. We watched The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: The Hottentot Venus, which I was fortunate to re-watch in preparation for this web event. Filmmaker Zola Maseko infuses the 52-minute documentary with historical “facts” about Sarah’s Khoikhoi roots along the Eastern Cape in South Africa and her parade across Europe as the Hottentot Venus in a freak-show like manner. One of the most shocking things I learned was the disgusting manner in which the European scientific community flocked towards her body parts and internal organs soon after she died. Hoping for the sake of science that they could study her “near human” make-up, as Professor Emeritus of Anatomy and Human Biology at Uni Witwatersrand Phillip Tobias called it, scientists dehumanized, devalued, and disrespected her body and person. Sarah’s living days of being poked, prodded, and perceived by onlookers as Other, less than human, de-gendered, and hypersexualized (among many more representations) struck me in a way unlike many other disturbing, unsettling black women’s experiences I learned about during the course.

Eli Clare’s discussion of the freak show brought me back to Sarah. When he wrote, “the freak show both fed upon and gave fuel to imperialism, domestic racist politics and the cultural beliefs about “wild savages” and white superiority” (99), I found myself concluding that the freak show helped further subjugate African women post-abolition of the slave trade as well as post-abolition of slavery (around the world). Sarah’s story was my first thought.

Why talk about Sarah? Who cares? Both, I think, are legitimate questions. At the same time, they point to the other significant insight I came to from my seminar: Black women’s stories often go untold. Illiteracy was once a large obstacle to this, but a larger reason why I think their stories go untold is because they are not thought of as important. In Sarah’s case, many African and African American scholars drove and continue to drive the academic conversation about her life and legacy (Willis). The brave and dedicated voices of indigenous Africans brought international attention to the question of Sarah’s imperative burial in her homeland – not in a French museum.

Vergaderingskop - Gamtoos valley

My goal is to enable conversation about who we thought/think Sarah was/is, how her life offers us the opportunity to entangle gender and sexuality with race and history in order to diffract new questions and understanding. Moreover, I think it is important to bring attention to her life in the midst of learning about gender and race politics.

To begin enabling conversation, we need some context of the historical moment in which Sarah lived. Beverly Guy-Sheftall offers a succinct description of the European fascination with the people of Africa they knew so little about before and during Sarah’s lifetime:

In the early years of the nineteenth century, a succession of Europeans visited and described this region’s [Dutch-fonded Cape Colony in southern Africa] indigenous inhabitants. Before the arrival of the British, however, little was known about the San, Khoikhoi, and Xhosa, who were erroneously and pejoratively renamed Bushmen, Hottentots, and Kahrs. Travelers’ tales revealed their peculiar physical attributes, which were intended to disassociate them from the human species. The males were said to have only one testicle and the females a large vaginal flap called a tablier and a fatty enlargement of the buttocks called steatopygia. Their language, composed mainly of clicks, sounded like animal noises rather than human speech to ethnocentric Europeans. Their consumption of raw meat put them in the category of beasts and savages as well. They were relegated to the lowest place on the scale of human life in the great chain of being, only one rung above the ape” (Wallace-Sanders 16).

Given this description of the European fascination, it may not come as a surprise that when Sarah was uprooted from her homeland she was paraded around Europe as a living, breathing “near human” with steatopygia. She “appeared in shows at Piccadilly, Haymarket, and Bartholomew Fair in London…[and] was…displayed at theaters and museums; on the dinner-party circuit, and at high-society balls [in Paris]” (Dubin 91). While my empathy lies with Sarah, I was intrigued and frustrated by a growing topic of conversation in academia about her agency. Steven Dubin summarizes this conversation by posing a series of questions: “Was she tricked into going? Persuaded? Lured? Coerced? Or did she have a sense of adventure and a desire to become wealthy?” (89)

There are no records of any of her personal reflections. As a result, it is not possible to be certain about her motivations, or lack thereof, to leave her homeland, if she had a choice. Conversations about her agency first strike me as disrespectful to her memory. Regardless of how much agency she had in the journey to Europe, once she arrived, she was stripped of her agency and humanity. Yet, could there be value in exploring these questions that I’m reluctant to ponder?

We may also never know Sarah’s birth name. Deborah Willis dedicated her 2010 anthology Black Venus 2010 to “S.B.” In this collection, she problematizes the difficulty of naming Sarah. “The facts of her life have been distorted and mythologized, and misinformation abounds surrounding the details of Baartman’s short life… no one can really agree on the spelling of her name, though assuredly virtually none of the versions in use reflect her given name, which remains unknown. They include Ssehura (thought to be closest to her given name); Sartjee, Saartje, Saat-je, Saartji, Saat-Jee, and Saartjie (all derived from the Afrikaans pronunciation, diminutive forms of Sara); as well as Anglicized Sara or Sarah. The Afrikaans diminutive ending “-tjie” is now generally regarded as patronizing, thus Sarah is one of the most common spellings currently in use. Her surname, presumably given to her upon her baptism in Manchester, England in 1811, has been represented as Baartman, Bartman, Baartmann, or Bartmann…” (4). Dubin lends a unique perspective to the task of naming Sarah within the colonial framework, especially in conversation with Willis’ point. He argues, “[the reclamation of indigenous names deal[s] a blow to the cultural supremacy of our erstwhile colonizers who arrogated to themselves the right to name, rename and mispronounce the indigenous names of people and places” (88). The question of knowing and understanding Sarah’s name is troubling in light of the fact that her physical make-up is also unknown. Countless works of art and diagrams depict Sarah’s body, but the artist’s racist, sexist, and/or ableist views of African women taint each image. The only part of her physical make-up that was kept was her internal organs, though hardly for an honorable purpose. Her “sexual organs and brain were preserved and displayed in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris until as recently as 1985…in the name of Science” (Maseko).

I will resist the temptation to conclude on this sour note. Instead, I’d like to appropriate Eli Clare’s “gawking at the gawkers” concept by ending on an empowering note. Sarah’s story is no longer confined to a few academic texts and an independently produced documentary. Last year, MK2 released Venus Noire, a film illustrating her life. Beyond telling her story to a larger, global audience, the film offers one answer to the question of who Ssehura/Sartjee/Saartje/Saat-je/Saartji/Saat-Jee/Saartjie/Sara(h) was. A woman.  

A screen capture from Venus Noire 

Works Cited 

Clare, Eli. Exile & Pride: Disability, Queerness & Liberation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2009. Print.

Dubin, Steven C. Transforming Museums: Mounting Queen Victoria in a Democratic South Africa. New York, N.Y: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Maseko, Zola, Adrian Brown, Hlengiwe Farasani, Philip Brooks, Harriet Gavshon, Phillip V. Tobias, François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar, Yvette Abrahams, S Martin, Brian Daubney, and Christian Docin-Julien. The Life and Times of Sara Baartman: "the Hottentot Venus". New York, N.Y: First Run/Icarus Films, 1998.

Wallace-Sanders, Kimberly. Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Print.

Willis, Deborah. Black Venus, 2010: They Called Her "hottentot". Philadelphia, Pa: Temple University Press, 2010. Print.




someshine's picture

Reflective Insight

I should have more explicitly described how my title and final sentence are an attempt to question who has been characterizing Ssehura historically, though without the intention of naming "who" they are. In the time of her display, Ssehura was not seen as a human woman, but something distantly disconnected. My answer at the conclusion was not meant to be as much a critique of Venus Noire's achievement as it was a false assumption that a new medium attempts to transform Ssehura - my implication is drawn from the film's ad. I did not successfully execute this subtlety.

Upon re-reading my web event, I understand where your puzzlement is coming from. Also what I did not make explicit is that I find the conversations disrespectful to her memory because I think the events that transpired once she got to Europe were horrible regardless of how much agency she had in the decision to make the trip (and the reasoning behind the decision). I may be assuming that conclusions draw from her agency inevitably and ultimately disrespect her as a human being that experienced torture and dehumanization.  

Upon further reflection, I think my claim was too harsh. Contemplating her agency helps pull the academic discourse out of the victimization spiral it's in (her victimization was something I spent more time learning about in my class last spring). 

Regarding your question about possibility, I think that Act II of the course helped me wrap my mind around the value and purpose of, as you say, "questioning the possibility that...facts exist in any understandable way." At the time that I wrote this web event, I did not consider this in a way that would have prevented me from polarizing "diffracting new questions and understanding" and "raising awareness." If I were to re-write this web event, I would introduce the scholarly interpretations and tracings of Ssehura's story that I present as one "piece" as a diffracted entanglement from different authors who did not have any control over my stringing together their claims and information. Additionally, I would acknowledge that the awareness I attempt to raise is rising out of a selection of "facts" (I'm lost for a better word at the moment that conveys the fluid nature of the pieces of information I present) that don't raise awareness as much as offer a few perspectives that can be contested by others I have chosen not to include (or did not come across). In spite of this, I do think that I diffracted new questions and understanding... as every project would! :P

The image of my face is an attempt to be transparent to my classmates about which of their classmates I am. Now that we have spent the semester together, and have engaged in fun activities to make associations between our physical identities and our Serendip usernames, I don't think this particular avatar serves as much of a purpose as I thought it would when I made my account. In terms of what my face signals about myself as a writer on this topic, I think one assumption may be that this helps establish the understanding that I am a male student. Though, the visual markers of this are assumptions I'm making about what a Serendip visitor/member of our class sees when they look at my photo... especially considering my hair was (and remains) considerably different at the time I made this account from what you can see in the photo. 

I feel compelled to explain that "someshine" is a reference to Stephen King's The Shining. Without spilling into too much detail (as not to spoil the novel for those who may want to read it!), I'll say that some people shine, some people don't. It isn't clear what causes some people to shine, but my username is a sentence made into one word, not specifically referring to who shines or what shining is. What is true about shining is that only people who shine can identify one another. This username is my attempt to be playful about the ways in which people claim to have 'gaydar' and can identify one another while others struggle in this process. In other words, I equate being gay with shining, gaydar with shine. For those who have read The Shining, this comparison makes little sense, but I thought it was clever and, at the time, interesting. I'm not quite sure how this, or my avatar, places me intellectually... I would say that one who catches the username reference might assume I'm a well-read individual, or perhaps less interestingly, one of those Stephen King fans... 

Anne Dalke's picture

"A woman."


You've really begun to take advantage, here, of the potentiality of the web for multi-media exploration of historical questions, weaving together poetry, video, images, active links, bolded text….In doing so, you've created some problems of (in)coherency: how to manage all of this?? (For example, your initial link to Diana Ferrus's poem is to a video that ends w/ the poem, cut off, but first, there's lots else going on there… And there are a number of other points where I get lost in your over-full text: what you call Beverly Guy-Sheftall's "succinct description" of the Europeans seems to come from Wallace-Sanders' text.) Let me nudge you to use videos and images as quotes, explaining to your audience, @ each insertion, what work you see them doing, what contribution they are making to the argument you are exploring. Point us to the highlights that you find important.

But these are all just quibbles. What I'm admiring most about your project is the way in which "Eli Clare’s discussion of the freak show brought you back to Sarah." What I really like here is your using the occasion of this class to loop back, re-think, reflect, diffract on earlier understandings. And most of my questions for you have to do w/ urging you to go further in that direction.

For instance, you show clearly the numerous ways in which "Ssehura" was"dehumanized, devalued, and disrespected." But I finish your project wondering how you understand the relation between "diffracting new questions and understanding" and "raising awareness": the latter seems to me much more "fixed," a matter of excavating "the facts," rather than questioning the possibility that such facts exist in any understandable way.

I'm puzzled, for instance, by your saying that conversations about Ssehura's agency--“Was she tricked into going? Persuaded? Lured? Coerced? Or did she have a sense of adventure and a desire to become wealthy?”-- strike you "as skeptical and disrespectful to her memory." Why is that? Under what construction is a search for agency disrespectful?

I'm puzzled even more by your conclusive certainty of your concluding note-->"She was a woman." Remember Wilchins, quoting Foucault? "Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are, but to refuse what we are." How stable is this target of "what we are"? Of what Ssehura was (and is)? While I'm here, I'll ask, too, how the cultural markers of your username and avatar function as "targets" in this paper: What do "someshine" and the image of your face signal about you as a writer on this topic? How do they place you, intellectually?