I will be frank: I do not respect Kim Kardashian’s “work,” whatever that is. She simultaneously manages to be society’s laughing stock while seemingly influencing popular culture and beauty standards. Her “work” is being whatever society wants her to be, and to me there is no art or talent involved. I avoid talking about her and I avoid participating in any form of popular culture that has anything to do with her. I find her tiresome, odious, and above all, boring.
But here I am discussing her because she is a menace in that way. Even when you wish not to know anything about her or her life, access to any form of popular media and popular culture, means you will be fed information about her in some shape or form.
As you may know, she recently “broke the Internet” with a picture of her butt. Of course, many informed people know that she was ironically the butt of an old racial joke. One in which a woman, Saartjie or Sarah Baartman, found herself in. Well, it was less of a joke and more of an inhumane experience in which this woman who we call Saartjie or Sarah, was exploited because of her body. However, this exploitation seems to have been left out of Jezebel writer Cleuci de Oliveira’s interpretation of Sarah’s story. In her piece, de Oliveira termed Baartman “the original booty queen,” and compares Kim Kardashian’s endeavors to Baartman’s. The piece in general, leaves much to be desired. But most of all, I lament the inaccuracies and presentation of falsehoods as fact. And not even contested facts, at that. Reading it made me physically ill.
de Oliveira’s piece, was many things but most especially, it was disrespectful to the memory of Baartman, callous in consideration to those who bear that legacy in their bodies, flat-out ignorant of African perspectives, and historically inaccurate, given most of the recent narratives that have emerged about Sarah. And it is for this reason, I must dissent. In summary, the piece attempts to contextualize Baartman in today’s Kardashian era, claiming that they both use their bodies to achieve fame. It completely erases the realities of Baartman’s plight in comparison to the freedoms and privileges Kim enjoys. In reality, Baartman was denied her humanity through no fault of her own. Kardashian will never know that tale. Their places in history are already vastly different based on that alone.
In the first place, context is everything. Sarah Bartman was of Khoikhoi descent. Some sources argue that she was born free. But most agree that she was more than likely born into slavery in 1789, in the Eastern Cape of modern day South Africa, then controlled by the Dutch empire. In her late teens or early twenties, when the British took control of the Eastern Cape, Sarah is said to have been sold to a doctor who found her body particularly “fascinating” because of her rear-end. She was then brought to England, most likely under coercion. She was known as the Hottentot Venus, as she was forcibly exhibited in freak shows to gawking men and women who were “fascinated” with her body.
After a four-year stint in England she was moved to Paris to perform and be exhibited in the same manner. Eventually Parisians grew bored of her, and she is said to have died of an inflammatory disease in 1815. But without any respect for the Black body, parts of her body, including her genitals and brain, were cut out and bottled for exhibition. It wasn’t until 1974 that her remains were removed from public viewing. And finally in 2002 at a request Nelson Mandela made in 1994, were her remains returned to South Africa so she could be laid to rest.
For anyone who has read anything I have written about race, or African culture or womanhood, and being an African woman myself, the story of Sarah Baartman is one that fills me with passion. The lack of dignity that the African body and especially the African woman’s body has experienced over centuries, and continues to experience at the hands of the traditional European male gaze, is one that leaves me at a loss for words. This diabolical fascination with African bodies, seen as oversexualized and consequently immoral and vulgar in nature, is nothing short of atrocious. And it has been used to justify the greatest sins committed against African people and African places. That a piece can be written that depicts Sarah Baartman in the light of Kim Kardashian, and compares these two women in the same light would be laughable if it wasn’t down-right uncivil, and borderline cold-blooded.
Kim Kardashian is many things, and we can talk about her sexuality in all its forms. We can disagree about all the feminists who want to swear up and down that what she does is sexually liberating – a claim I do not buy into. Indeed, Kim’s #breatktheInternet pictures became famous because what you have is a White woman’s (or at least a woman of Armenian descent who enjoys American white privilege) ability to wear Blackness without actually being Black; the mainstream acceptance of Black features occurring without actually having to see a Black body. And yes, “we” have Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj but let us not pretend the whitewashing of these individuals is not what makes them so appealing to a non-Black audience. But above all, what all these individuals do have, at least to an adequate degree, is something that Sarah Baartman did not – agency.
Now one can argue that Baartman had a choice – she could have not performed. But what was her alternative? Death? Abuse? We do not know for sure but history makes those deductions more than likely. Baartman didn’t have a choice as many women in those sorts of positions don’t – they have dilemmas. And in the face of dilemma, one chooses a lesser evil. But these “choices” do not equate to freedom. They are always more than likely about self-preservation, in the face of the worst kind of disparity.
Beyond the apparent lack of due diligence in the piece, de Oliveira’s description of Baartman as an “illegal immigrant” sits somewhere in history’s imagination between disbelief and anger. She was no more illegal than the millions that were transported to the Americas and Europe because of transatlantic slavery. Furthermore, describing Baartman’s skills in juxtaposition to Kardashian’s, is an insult to the memory of this woman. Kardashian does not need any fame given to her, she simply thrives on it. Removed from her homeland and facing all sorts of unknown suffering, Baartman was a woman who tried to survive.
Big butts, big thighs, tiny waists, and all the rest of them are not fascinations to Black people, to African people. They are not “trendy,” they are not things that are “in,” or things that “need to be brought back.” They have always and will likely always be a part of the legacy of those who came before us. We were not ashamed of them until we were taught to be ashamed of them; until we were subjected to violence and otherness. And even then, for many of us, the beauty of our features prevailed in our constructions and appreciation of women’s bodies. We, as African people, have traditionally always been more inclusive of different types of women’s bodies. And in the face of a culture that chews and spits trends out in a matter of time, it is important for all women to know this.
As of this latest attempt to re-write history in order to fit a certain type of Western imagination, an imagination that tries to justify the harm it has committed on not just one Sarah Baartman, but many Sarah Baartman’s, I am grateful that I am capable of being one of many voices who protests, because it is objectively wrong. And in the future, I would advise anyone attempting to write about African stories and African people, to perhaps respect us enough to listen to our stories, read our version of events, written by people writing from our perspective. Otherwise you do yourself and the audience the disservice of thinking what you are writing is nuanced narrative. When really, it is nothing short of a travesty.