Sarah Baartman—Remarkable [Some]Body—Reflections from Black History Month and a Cautionary Tale for Public Health

At the beginning of Black History Month, I went to The New Parkway Theater in Oakland, and watched “Black Venus,” a 2010 French film.  It was the midnight showing for the Feelmore Fresh Fridays film series, a curated mix of “sexual and/or gender identities to erotic, nude, pornographic, and artsy” films.

I sat down expecting to be titillated by some fresh, feminist, sexy, artistic film. What I got was a visceral experience of bodies and sexuality, but served up in a grotesquely emotional life story, a befitting challenge in honor of Black History Month. The biopic depicts the life of Sarah” Saartije” Baartman: a Khoikhoi woman from southwestern Africa; an ex-slave who was brought to Europe in the early 19th century; a woman who earned a living as a performer for a circus; a woman whose body was interesting to Europeans because of its proportions.

We see the film depicting Saartije’s short life, as she negotiates her marginal freedom of choice in London and Paris. She has some celebrity status, but only in the most reviled way; she performs the ‘freakish’ contours of her body, a caged African savage in a circus show. Are we really of the same species? the circus audience is compelled to ask.

She later appears in front of a court. They want to know: Did she consent to being caged, to being exhibited? Was she really a free person? Could an intelligent human actually agree to that level of public degradation? The powder-wigged British officials are not equipped to address the intricacies of choice in the context of colonialism, coercion, commodification—on a subjugated African body.

In the moments that Saartije does assert authority over her own body, she experiences the repercussions. When she refuses to have her labia inspected at the French Museum of National History, the researchers are peeved. You’re refusing? But it’s for science! they say. Yet they do not protest when she finally walks out on them. We’ll get what we want later, they say to themselves. When she refuses certain types of humiliation in the French circus show, she gets fired. At this point Saartije resorts to sex work; she is a free person, but without resources, and so she continues to commodify her body for survival. She drinks booze to cope with the circumstances of her life, and dies in poverty, in obscurity, around the age of 25. In the final scenes of the film, we see the researchers again. This time they cut apart a cloaked body, and drop noteworthy sex parts into jars of preservative. Saartije is highly valued by the Europeans, but only for her disembodied features; the relative benefit of Saartije’s body for Europeans versus herself is gruesomely obvious.

Is it a surprise that her life became significant to Europeans both as a circus oddity and as a remarkable specimen for biomedical research? I do not think so. Biomedicine builds itself on a narrow conception of normal, of healthy. Thanks to biomedical research and its drive to pathologize, you’re more likely to have some diagnosis, to have some medication, to have some abnormality, than not.

Whose bodies have the luxury of being normal? Certainly not mine, with its cauldron of pan-continental ancestral blood, unapologetically straight black hair, button nose, curvy body—my body that incites that oh-so-familiar interrogative “What are you” on a monthly basis. [My fellow multi-racials and Asian Americans, knowwhaddimean?] Our narrow conceptions of normal exist culturally and not just within biomedicine. The life story of Saartije is a painful reminder that biomedicine is influenced by cultural norms including racism, sizeism, ageism, ableism and/or sexism.

My current public health work on polycystic ovary syndrome asks similar questions—how does our understanding of normal, healthy bodies [and conversely, of dangerous, unhealthy bodies] get entwined in cultural norms of femininity, heterosexuality, and thinness?    

 

As a public health worker, it’s important that I interrogate—because my field is the one that served up Saartije’s body into pieces..

is the same field that ran the Tuskegee experiments

is the same field that criminalized pregnant women for their addictions

is the same field that lobotomized and electro-shocked to cure homosexuality…

is the same field that preaches cultural competence

is the same field that asks why people with certain bodies do not trust this field.

And it is the field where I choose to work, where I choose to earn a living, and where I make a difference.