Saturday, November 29, 2008

Crais & Scully's "Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus"

Clifton Crais is professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of The Politics of Evil. Pamela Scully is associate professor of women's studies and African studies at Emory University. She is the author of Liberating the Family?

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography, and reported the following:
It just so happens that on page 99 Sara Baartman speaks to us during the middle of the court proceedings in London, 1811. This is serendipitous for the purposes of this discussion. The statement by Sara Baartman reveals at once the challenges of writing the biography of a woman about whom we know both so much, through her performance on the London and Parisian stages as the Hottentot Venus, and so little.

The world knows much more about a figment of the imagination-- the “Hottentot Venus” --than the woman who lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and who was buried, finally, in South Africa nearly two centuries after her death in Paris. Our book is an attempt to acknowledge the impossibilities of knowledge, and yet to document what we can find out about people who lived on the margins of society, and thus often are recorded in the margins of History. Our book also speaks to the paradoxes we are left with as authors: that we can write a biography of an icon, but have been so much more challenged in writing of the woman called Sara Baartman.

And thus we come to page 99 [right, inset]. After talking of her life on the South African frontier and then in Cape Town, and detailing her life in London, we now come to the only time in the record where we hear Sara Baartman speak. We now prepare ourselves, as writers and also readers, we think, with some relief, to hear the truth.

But this page cautions us to hold our breaths, not to release our anxiety about what truths the archives can produce. As we discuss, the interview was conducted in Dutch, Sara’s second language, and in the presence of the man, the former surgeon of the Cape Slave Lodge, who had brought her to London to make money by displaying her body. Sara spoke, but she spoke in the context of myriad power dynamics. We cannot take her speech as transparent of her will, and we might also question whether the concept of will even made sense to her, coming from a colonial slave and genocidal frontier. Perhaps it did: she had lived in Cape Town as a bonded person, but with some independence of movement for over ten years before she came to London. But we cannot easily wrap up neatly the specific truths of her statement to the court. The meanings drift away from us, and our point is to acknowledge how little we can know, to recognize and perhaps embrace the illusive nature of history.

And yet, these documents also come down to us through history, and have meanings in the present still. In the twenty-first century, nearly two hundred years after Sara Baartman made her statement to the King’s Bench, “The case of the Hottentot Venus” was invoked in the controversies involving the Guantanamo Bay detainees in Washington D.C. before the Supreme Court of the United States.
Read an excerpt from Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus, and learn more about the book from the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue