I remember sitting in Dr. Carter’s African American History class in undergrad, when he passed around a picture of Saartje Baartman. There was silence in the room as he told the story of this woman who was from the Khoi tribe and how she was hunted and captured. Baartman, whose large buttocks were unlike anything her captors had seen, was considered a commodity–someone whose body could be used for profit in ways other than the traditional use as chattel.
After her capture in 1810, Baartman was quickly ushered off to London, where she was placed on exhibit because of her large buttocks (steatopygia) and her her elongated labia. Over the next few years, she became an “exhibit piece” in London, France, and other places in Europe, where people were welcomed to touch and examine her body as they chose.
Five years later, she died in France.
As if what happened to her while she was alive was not sickening, her genitals were preserved and placed on display at Paris’ Musee de L’Homme until 1974. Her native South Africa requested her remains from the museum so that they could bury her with dignity, but France did not acquiesce until 2002.
The hypervisibility and objectification of black bodies were exemplified by the slave block, where black bodies were made available to be picked, poked, and jabbed by potential purchasers who examined slaves’ bodies for bondage.
I have thought about Ms. Baartman lately, and I thought about countless other slaves on the auction block when I heard about an exhibit in New York City, where black women volunteered to have their hair touched by strangers who were curious to know what black hair felt like. This exhibit was sponsored by Un-ruly.com. Antonia Opiah, one of the organizers of the event says in Huffington Post, “In an effort to ‘take one for the team’ and to further explore the tactile fascination with black hair, Un’ruly will be holding an interactive public art exhibit in New York City . . . dubbed You can Touch My Hair.” She invited strangers to walk up to her and her team and touch their hair and explore what it felt like.
Through reading social media, I learned that this exhibit pissed off countless black women (and men, alike), who were horrified that black women were allowing themselves to be a part of a petting zoo. I have to agree with that sentiment.
Another thought occurred to me: After the Saartje Baartmans, after the auction block, after our Grandmothers and their mothers worked in white people’s kitchens where their bodies were still made available to the sexual exploitation of white men (and sometimes women), why are we still such a curiosity to white people?
If you are interested in seeing some images from the exhibit, check out the post from a blog I follow, Colorlines.
Oh, and, for the record: touch my hair without an invitation, and you’ll come up with missing fingers. Ya heard?