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Bodies in Dissent

Sarah Derbew

Harvard University

This paper presents a diasporic investigation of a particular "Venus" figure: South African Sara Baartman (nineteenth century), who performed under the name "Venus Hottentot." Through a temporal and geographical collision with the archetypical Knidian Aphrodite (fourth century BCE), this paper provides insight into the complex performativity of Black femalehood in conjunction with an overwritten Greco-Roman divinity.

Echoing Janell Hobson's (2005) desire to "redeem Black women's bodies and the figure of the Hottentot Venus beyond the discourse of racial alterity," this paper offers a restorative approach to the "Black Venus" trope through a careful tracing of its permutations. It is impossible to redress the violence in the archives because narrators provide lopsided commentary. For example, when Pliny the Elder and Lucian comment on a stain on Knidian Aphrodite's thigh from an overzealous viewer's ejaculation, they reify and objectify Aphrodite's sexual magnetism (Pliny NH 36.21, Lucian Amores 13-16). In Suzan-Lori Parks' [1990] (1997) production Venus, however, Parks complicates a rigid narratorial voice when she elides her protagonist, "The Venus," and the historical figure into one character. "The Venus" destabilizes her subaltern status with her parabasis-like remark: "I regret to inform you that thuh Venus Hottentot iz dead. There wont b inny show tuhnite" (Parks 1997: 4). The trope of sparagmos (Rankine 2006, McConnell 2016) frames this protagonist's predicament; her symbolic dismemberment occurs when she is ripped from her homeland and her physical dismemberment begins immediately after her death when doctors dissect her body. By examining an array of perspectives that span time, geography, and genres, this paper confronts the contradiction inherent in the invisibility and hypervisibility of the Black female body.

In response to the frustrating silence of enslaved women who were sexualized/exploited/forgotten in history, Saidiya Hartman (2008) points out the conditions that dictate the silence of Sara Baartman. In a similar vein, this paper (re)members Sara Baartman as a subversive figure whose historical position belies her resilience. This cross-cultural dialogue reveals a literary compositio membrorum; this cohesion echoes the return of Sara Baartman's body to South Africa in 2002. Altogether, this trans-historical project emphasizes the "canvas of dissent" on which historical and literary figures can exist (Brooks 2006).

Session/Panel Title

Theorizing Africana Receptions

Session/Paper Number

17.3

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