Black women, you see, have a special sensitivity as to how their womanhood is portrayed in mass culture. They’ve had to contend with centuries of being labeled promiscuous whores, hardwired for animalistic sexuality and not much else by that blasted jungle DNA. It has been a battle for decency and dignity at the most intimate, personal level. The victories in the battle have been so hard-fought, the wounds still so far from healed, that it doesn’t take much to call all that pain back to the surface. The ravages against black womanhood are legion, but with big butts on endless display in videos and “bitch” and “ho” all but commonplace in hip-hop lyrics, one particularly sad and disturbing case comes to mind.
Sarah Baartman (1789-1816) survived the slaughter of her people, only to be exploited for centuries hence. She was born in what we now call South Africa as a Khoikhoi, and enslaved in Cape Town by wealthy Britons. Her exceedingly large rear end, especially prominent on a short 4-foot-7 frame, gave associates of her enslavers the idea that there was money to be made. So Baartman went off to London, where she was christened “Hottentot Venus” and put on public display.
She was marketed as the freak show to end all freak shows. She was made to bandy about in a cage, her derriere in full and barely clothed view, and would be told to perform a song or dance for the leering, jeering patrons. The spectacle became a smash hit, inspiring bawdy parlor songs. Baartman actually enjoyed a brief measure of dignity in her downtime from “performing”, but such luxuries were a thing of the past by the time the enterprise made its way to Paris.
There it was more of the same, in even more degrading circumstances. The French were so taken by the sight of her rear, and by thoughts of her supposedly altered genitalia, that scientists convened to prod, poke and examine her. She died of pneumonia, alcoholism, and despair in Paris on New Year’s Day, 1816, but that is not the end of the story.
Instead of being given a proper burial in France or her native land, Baartman was preserved like a prize specimen, remaining on display for another two centuries at Paris’ Museum of Natural History. The exhibit included a life-size statue, her preserved brain, and a wax model of her genitals. These were offered as proof positive, according to the scientific community of the 1800s, of the genetic inferiority of African people. It was not until 2002, after years of awareness raising and diplomatic wrangling, that Baartman’s remains were remanded to South Africa for a long-delayed, fitting memorial.
Author Barbara Chase-Riboud saw that Paris exhibit in the 1970s, and the images stuck with her. She would eventually set those images loose in Hottentot Venus (Doubleday, 2003), a historical novel which imagines Baartman commenting on her pain and circumstances, and imparts a measure of decency Baartman never experienced in life:
“Despite the filth around me, I was determined to remain clean, my skin soft and smooth, unblemished as when I polished it with whale fat. I spent my waking hours, out of the cage, trying out new grease and pomades, oiling my face and neck, my hands and feet, my breasts and thighs. I dipped my hands into the softness of kid, satin and velvet gloves, which I collected by the dozens. According to Alice, my body was, in fact, insured by Lloyd’s of London for more than five hundred pounds. This must have been my new owner’s idea. I could not imagine my former master, or my former husband, thinking of it. All that was so long ago. I no longer thought nor cared about it anymore, I couldn’t. I would go crazy if I did. All I wanted now as the hot peacefulness of my bath: to sink down into oblivion with my opium pipe and my gin. To live only in dreams. Dreams of a time when I was not a thing-that-should-never-have-been-born.”
Obviously, there is no direct correlation between the indignity of Baartman’s exploitation and the current sub-genre of big-bottomed video hotties; these modern-day Hottietots, if you will. Our hip-hop honeys haven’t been dissected and pickled by science, at least not yet. In a June 2004 essay on Playahata.com, Ooh Papi connected Baartman to hip-hop images in discussing, of all things, blue jeans (“Sara Baartman: Nelly’s Apple Bottom of the Century”). Apple Bottom jeans are supposedly designed and sewn to accommodate fuller rumps, which mass-market designer jeans apparently don’t do so well. Nothing wrong with that, all body types need to have clothes that properly fit them. The issue became problematic for Papi once it came time to market them.
Nelly there he goes again launched the brand, and set about a national search to find a spokesmodel. Ooh Papi’s essay, coming hot on the heels of Nelly’s Spelman debacle, railed against the indignity of a campaign tie-in with VH1 showing scads of young women from the butt only, divorced of any other body part of characteristic that might have meaning to someone. Yes, you’ve got to show jeans designed for specific body types being worn by those body types, but Papi felt the campaign established that “. . . once again, sistas are little more than the sum of their body parts.”
That level of exploitative commodification in our pop culture is what bothers black womanists and activists against sexism. They recognize the fact that Ford, Steffans, et al and Baartman may be worlds apart in some respects, but are indeed connected by a problematic and slippery slope. I’m not suggesting that these round-assed Hottietots are living and working in anything close to the indentured squalor that Baartman knew, or that the corporations that foot the bill for these videos, ads, and magazines are engaging in a spin-off of the slave trade. But what exactly is the difference between Baartman being prodded about in a cage and a black woman flapping her butt to sell phones?
Melyssa Ford and her cohorts have every right to do what they do. It is a legal product, it does not endanger anyone’s health, and no one is forced to consume their work. Indeed, given all the other pressing issues black women face these days (access to health care, inequitable wages, unfair working conditions, their growing presence in the criminal justice system, and I could go on), activists can probably come up with better things to do with their time than rail against stupid little videos of stupid little songs.
And if Ford can dictate the terms of when, where, and how much she disrobes, that’s more than Baartman ever got to do not to mention the legions of young women grinding away in strip clubs even as we speak, hoping to become the next Superhead. So on one level, that’s progress. It’s another way for black women to make decent coin (and one that, like it or not, has been available to white women for years), and for Ford, it’s been an entrée into opportunities less fraught with controversy.
But how does all this Hottietot rump shaking affect the young black boys and girls who consume it? And, for that matter, the young boys and girls of other ethnicities? Do they ignore the images and live for the beats? Or do they internalize a message that women need to have outstanding physical attributes in order to succeed? Do they come to expect that all women can or even want to shake their asses like strippers on command? Do they believe that bouncing booties are the black woman’s main gift to mankind? Do they indeed believe that any other gifts might be possible?
While these and related issues get bandied about at an academic conference or conclave of progressive sistas near you (or, most crucially, among educators and social service professionals who interact with young black girls) the beat goes on. On the flip side of her Eye Candy centerfold, Ford is modeling Apple Bottom jeans; I guess Nelly finally found his spokesmodel.
And the latest Black Men Swimsuit Extra special issue is devoted to Buffie the Body, who headed off for fame and fortune as a dancer (and I ain’t talking ballet) as soon as her 34-28-46 frame blossomed. In the magazine, we learn that she’d like to score an endorsement deal for a booze or clothing company, among her other career plans for ‘06. She’d strip for Playboy for not less than one million bucks. And several shots feature her nickname prominently tattooed on her right buttock. She likely considers it a cute piece of self-marketing. But it’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of a brand a slave master, pimp, or some other exploiter of black women might make.
Her nickname? “Tasty”.