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This is the first part in a series on Sara Baartman.

You might not be familiar with the name Sara Baartman, but you’ll almost certainly be familiar with her life – or at least her body. Baartman was a woman of uncertain ethnic origin, although several have been ascribed to her, and South African extraction. She was exhibited in Western Europe in the early nineteenth century as the “Hottentot Venus”. Regarded as a perfect example of “primitive” sexual womanhood, Baartman’s body was dissected in the name of racial science and put on museological display after her death.

She has come to symbolise, at various times, the cause of nineteenth century English colonialist abolitionists, all that’s wrong with objectification of the colonised other, the harm rendered by bigoted tropes about black womanhood, the need for black political agency in South Africa, and whatever ideas about gender and visuality are popular with academics today. Baartman, in short, has been made to represent broad categories of gender, race, and sexuality. Often, these have been constituted in ways that don’t pay attention to her individuality or experience.

Her body has had to take up more discourses than she lived through, and at her expense. For example, when Baartman’s remains were returned to South Africa, it was a powerful symbol of taking charge, of black South Africans recovering their history and power – but we’re not sure if her body was returned to the correct group for the correct burial. And Baartman’s story is absolutely aligned with how black womanhood has come to be understood, exploited and scorned, but the ethnic groups she is thought to have belonged to weren’t necessarily classified as black ones in her time. How do we even begin to separate all this out?

What I want to do is treat Baartman’s memory with respect. That involves, insofar as we can, acknowledging the specificity of what she experienced and who she was, where she has been presented as a symbolic gendered and racial other across scientific, museological, political, and academic contexts. Social justice ought to understand what was going on properly before we can adequately point to her as a symbol of the need for social justice. Until then, she’s being treated as just another exploitable body, as she has been for hundreds of years.

In a series of posts, I’m going to try in my small way to shed some light, and point to other people doing the same. I’ll just make a final note before I begin, on calling Sara Baartman that name. This wasn’t her birth name – that’s lost – it’s one she was assigned by Cezar, her master. She’s known by variations on that name, not to mention the “Hottentot Venus”. A popular variation is Saartjie. “Tjie” is an Afrikaans diminutive meaning “little”. Yes, they called a woman they were objectifying for her volumptuous body “little Sarah”. For some reason, I’ve generally heard Saartjie pronounced the Dutch way. The reason I’m using Sara Baartman here is that it’s the name that seems the most respectful under the disrespectful circumstances. This is illustrative of my point: so much of her specificity, her background, her history before display, even her name, has been lost to history and objectification.