Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French.
Contemporary cultural and race theorists will benefit greatly from T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting's study of the construction of black female representation in the image of the so-called Hottentot Venus, Sarah Bartmann. This image of savagery was attached to black women in canonical French literature by Baudelaire, Balzac, Zola, Maupassan [+,] and Loti. The discussion then turns to the twentieth-century film persona of American-born Josephine Baker and her performance in the popular Princesse Tam Tam. Black Venus ends with a discussion of how Francophone scholars of the nineteenth century countered the negative representation of black women and their bodies perpetuated by. Europeans. Finally, the appendix translates the vaudeville act The Hottentot Venus, or Hatred of Frenchwomen, to which Sharpley-Whiting refers heavily in one of the book's early chapters.
Combined, these sections fulfill Sharpley-Whiting's most provocative goal, that of beginning with "the very different positionality and (mis)representation of black femininity embodied in Sarah Bartmann and carried on in fervor well into the twentieth century," accurately distinguishing her work from that of others who have reclaimed Bartmann. For those who are familiar with Bartmann as an historical figure, Sander Gilman's work Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness may be noted as the authority on black female representation in France. However, Sharpley-Whiting makes clear in her introduction that Gilman fails to include details of Sarah Bartmann in the chapter "The Hottentot and the Prostitute: Towards an Iconography of Female Sexuality," although Bartmann is "one major black female figure featured" in the text.
The first, or foundational, chapter of Black Venus may present information familiar to those who have read the scant history of Bartmann in Gilman's Difference and Pathology and in Elizabeth Alexander's poem The Venus
Hottentot that opens this chapter. However, if one is unaware of this history, Sharpley-Whiting provides an overview that repeats the meager information offered about Bartmann in the aforementioned accounts and other historical texts. The chapter is an important one because it establishes how black women invoked both "desire and primal fear" in the Frenchmen they encountered. This binary is best illustrated in Sharpley-Whiting's description of how Bartmann's body was inscribed by Frenchmen, where she is, "all at once, roast beef, a strange beauty, an amusing freak of nature, and erased, invisible, as the female spectator privileges the penis." In turn, each figure that is subsequently discussed in the text comes across in a similar light.
Though Sharpley-Whiting does not intend to conflate the images of black women with those of poor women or even biracial women, she does show the connection between these women in that they are all "other" in relation to white women. In chapter three," 'The Other Woman': Reading a Body of Difference in Balzac's La Fille aux yeux d'or," the sexual prey, a mulatto named Paquita, looks white but is "inescapably black and thus unable to shake the lascivious and ardent stereotypes of black female sexuality." The sexuality of black women is further denigrated in Zola's Therese Raquin, in which the black women's body is compared to that of the prostitute even though history has shown that the vast majority of prostitutes in nineteenth-century Europe were white women, with only a small minority being "women of color." Instead of giving currency to the ways in which others have viewed the mulatto, the negress, the poor woman, and the prostitute as one and the same, Sharpley-Whiting problematizes any possible conflatio n by pointing out that the true connection among these bodies is how they are each stripped of subjectivity and are commodified into the prototypical specimen of the black "race."
Sharpley-Whiting's use of the story of the Venus Hottentot must be recognized as the driving force behind the text. By revisiting this story, she establishes that Frenchmen were both repulsed by and attracted to the body of the black woman and that this premise is prevalent in many stories that are staples of nineteenth-century French literature. Unlike the literature that is the subject of Black Venus, the voice of the Frenchman offered by Sharpley-Whiting without privileging it over the voice/story of the black woman.
Sharpley-Whiting's end discussion of what Francophone writers were saying during the nineteenth century is important because it is a call for interested scholars to do more work in revealing the "diversity of black female subjectivities rather than monolithic, homogenizing constructions of black femaleness." This discussion adds to Sharpley-Whiting's study in that it challenges the monolithic caricatures of black women and suggests that black women and their bodies be further complicated in literature and film to reflect the diversity that exists outside these artistic venues.
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|Author:||Tsemo, Bridget Harris|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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