Saartjiemania, Serena and The Politics of Black Humiliation

by Otamere Guobadia

It is nearly impossible to deny that we live in a gladiatorial zeitgeist. A world in which Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle’s shows mine working class sorrow for the satiation of eager and complicit audiences. A culture of humiliation. Humiliation of the disenfranchised plays an important role in maintaining an oppressive status quo. By playing often brutal and emotional mind games with their ‘guests’ these shows portray already disenfranchised people at their most brutish and undeserving, helping convince us that our own privilege and social capital is both deserved and secured due to our innate superiority.

When our humiliation culture intersects with race politics we are presented with a particularly bleak picture. Through media and popular culture lenses, the fiction of white racial superiority and convictions about that innate difference are given enduring credibility. When Holmes speaks of the ‘Saartjiemania’ that swept London in the 18th Century[1] what she of course refers to is the widespread fascination and exploitation of Saartjie Baartman, coined ‘The Venus Hottentot.’ In the early 19th century, Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa, was displayed as a living exhibit in London and Paris. At the peak of her popularity her exaggerated physical form was seen as an abnormal object to be poked and prodded by white Westerners. In one final act of humiliation, Saartjie Baartman’s body (particularly her buttocks and genitalia) were dissected and put on display until the 1970s. Victorian London used her as evidence of their own ‘normality’.

In the western world the black body is necessarily a queer one, subject to a bloodthirsty and dehumanising discourse. Under the insecurity of mounting state violence, the victimhood of the black body is conflated with the deservedness of its status, this contemporary discourse convincing those that are not the immediate victims of epidemic structural violence that they do not deserve to be victims.

The malignant theatre of black body exploitation did not end with Saartjie Baartman—our bodies have become ripe for exploitation in a different and more malicious platform. We never abolished our human zoos—they are digital now, the degraded black body curated in vines and YouTube videos: Viral, anonymous, unrepentant. The subjugation and exploitation of black womanhood in particular occupies pride of place in popular culture. Under colonial legacy she is only sex object, a perverse reduction to flesh and bone curiosity—saved to our favourites and bookmarks to be replayed and memefied at our convenience. Black womanhood is fair game, to be hyper-sexualised and leveraged for white entertainment.

In a recent and particularly telling moment, Glamour Magazine celebrated Taylor Swift’s silencing of Nicki Minaj’s important dialogue about how black women go unrewarded for their cultural contribution, as a victory of (white) feminism, only to backtrack and delete posts when Swift acknowledged her misstep. Black womanhood and the black female body which possesses and asserts sexual agency as Nicki Minaj does, cannot be celebrated when it moves beyond the license it is granted under white supremacy—nor can it be successfully allowed to celebrate or assert its excellence without repercussion. It is a body necessarily defined by its positionality relative to the white body; the greater its deviation from Eurocentric standard, the greater its worthiness of humiliation and violence.

This violation necessitates its othering, using tropes loaded with racism and misogynoir. The ‘ex-gay’ black man proclaiming “I don’t like menz no more!”, and the viral video of Sweet Brown crooning catchphrases in southern AAVE are funny, because our common understanding of its comic value, is predicated upon its inferiority. We must remove the black colloquialisms from our voices, and swap homegrown, rich vernacular and oral traditions for the Queen’s English before we might be something not worthy of being laughed at. The eurocentric respectability politics that we must adhere to to survive in the white supremacist frameworks, demands it. The loud room that is oppression and socioeconomic duress twist us into complicity with our own degradation. Sweet Brown then, not as performer with agency, but as caricature, is viewed successfully with humour only through a white supremacist lens. Her stay in the zeitgeist was even promoted by an uncomfortable dental advert, evocative of old-school Aunt Jemima imagery.

Both Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift have, unwittingly or not, used black women as props to contrast the ‘grotesque’ exaggeration of black womanhood with their own ‘true,’ white womanhood: as objects of rhetoric, ripe for vulgar metaphor and comparison. Widespread media mockery of people of colour goes unnoticed and unavenged by the mainstream feminist movement (they are in fact some of it’s most willing participants), and attempts to take white womanhood off the pedestal meet with rapid opposition. White feminism is more concerned about the fictional humiliation of the white, blonde archetype of Rihanna’s BBHMM— a Daisy Buchanan-esque woman prospering from and exploiting the alienated fruits of her labour—than they are about the real-life humiliation of the black female body.

Kara Walker, A Subtlety, 2014. Photography by Jason Wyche

When artist Kara Walker, created a 35 Ton Mami-faced sphinx made of sugar, a piece exploring this routine exploitation of the black female body, it unsurprisingly triggered the reproduction of the traditionally gendered and racialised exploitation of the black female form, with the white queer Orange Is The New Black star posting a photo of her cradling it’s breasts with the caption, “Sugar Tits.” The black body under white supremacy exists to be subjugated or it cannot exist at all.

Serena Williams has suffered similar treatment, both at the hands of racist social media users and her own white tennis contemporaries. JenER Desmond-Harris identifies the undeniable parallels between the scientific racism that surrounded the treatment of the ‘Venus Hottentot’ and the treatment of the William’s sisters: a discourse in which their personhood and the corollary privileges we attribute to it are seen as up for debate. This is a discourse that seeks to dehumanise black bodies in the most literal sense. Thus, the William’s sister’s are likened to primates, their dominance and skill branded the result of an unnatural, inhuman brute strength, their bodies subjected to the same transmisogynistic ‘jokes’orepeated ad infinitum in attempts to devalue black womanhood and its successes. There is a sense of violent entitlement to their bodies.

This believed entitlement has a long history and relates not only to a sense of ownership of the bodily image but of the body itself. Take, for example, the well-documented, unspeakable physical and sexual violations of black men and women made in the name of the advancement of medical technology. Black bodies were systematically tortured, butchered, and given over to the prestige and pageantry of scientific enquiry, used as a violent means of furthering understanding of childbirth and gynaecological medicine, not to mention maintaining the slave labour that underpinned capitalist enterprise at the expense of black life, freedom and dignity.

White fixation on the black body remains in contemporary culture. Indeed this arrogant, racist and violent obsession was painfully evident in Brett Bailey’s ‘Exhibit B , the controversial recreation of the original human zoo’s that once held such cultural force. Even now, the black body under the white-supremacist gaze must exist somewhere between fetish and humiliation with no room for agency in between, be it in the name of art, or satire, or comedy. One of Serena’s fellow tennis contemporaries candidly demonstrated this obsession with black body difference, aping Serena’s own physical form by stuffing her shirt and skirt during a tennis match.

And yet in spite of the constant challenges to their sense of self, economic security, and even their humanity, the carefree black girl in popular culture continues to thrive. Indeed, despite detractors and a white supremacist structure, hellbent on her humiliation and downfall, Serena continues to rise. She is not just playing the tennis of her life—she is playing the tennis of our lifetime. Serena Williams, unlike Saartjie, is not a cautionary tale. She is the story of self-fashioning: a powerhouse, who humiliation slips off like sweat on a tennis court. Despite the jealousies and impertinences of white mediocrity, Serena stands her ground, demonstrating for all who want to see, the strength and resilience of black womanhood.

[1] Holmes, Rachel (2006). The Hottentot Venus.

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Otamere Guobadia is a law finalist at University College, Oxford. Activist, former editor of Oxford based queer and trans publication, No HeterOx and President of the Oxford University LGBTQ society. He hopes to one day speak French, Have roses and apologise to no one.’ @otamere (and queer photography blog intheimageandlikeness).

This article was edited by Melanie Singhji

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2 thoughts on “We never abolished our human zoos – they are digital now

  1. I’m so glad to see someone else notice! Years ago, I Googled Nicki Minaj, and the first suggestion was Nicki Minaj’s ass. I was like, “here we go again, at least she gets to keep the money!”


  2. A lot steel needs to be done here I think because the so-called inferiority of a black person has not ended but it is still maintained.


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