This was not an easy one to write. But we must confront our devils and our demons. Silence is how black women die. We fall into the world’s silences, like we fall into oceans, drown, like we fall into open graves, in the fields, like we disappear into social prisons, held there by malicious silences, and wilful blindnesses. Cold and callous. So we need to talk. We need to talk about misogynoir. This will not be easy, this is not a rousing letter of defiance. This is a verse in a litany of long lamentation, an exhumation of the bodies of black women buried under undeserved vitriol, hate and contempt. This is a bringing of whitened bones to the light, an uncovering of rotting flesh imbued with the stench of our hypocrisy, sodden with our spite and our scorn, our refusal to accept the existence of our own monstrosities and thus repudiate them. So let us talk about misogynoir.
Misogynoir is the counterpoint to intersectionality. In a previous post, I explored the urgent imperatives of speaking of intersectionality and intersectional feminism – the understanding of how black women’s overlapping identities like race, class, ethnicity, gender, coloniality, impact the way they experience oppression and discrimination. Intersectionality is the sword that kills misogynoir. Misogynoir was a term coined by Moya Bailey. It is a portmanteau that combines “misogyny” and the French word for black – “noir” – to describe the specific racialized sexism and sexualised racism that Black women face. It exposes the hypersexualisation imposed on black female bodies, the voyeuristic preoccupation with black female bodies that reduces black female bodies to a single rudimentary function. It tells of the persistent engagement with black female bodies as permanent spectacle. It tells of erasure of voices and agency that enables annihilation.
It is sometimes argued that this preoccupation with the black female body began with American slavery. An interesting characteristic of plantation slavery in the US was that enslavement was passed through the mothers bloodline. Any child born of an enslaved woman was herself a slave, even if the father of the child was the highest born slave-master. This placed the black woman in the middle of a maelstrom of malevolent gazes. The slave-master’s lusty gaze seeing her as a source of more slaves, more income; the slave-master’s wife’s gaze full of hate but obstinately refusing to see the black woman’s oppression. Her fellow enslaved male seeing her as defiled, easy, available, not as oppressed, re-oppresses her. However, it is my suggestion that plantation slavery was an illustration of misogynoir, not a genesis. Misogynoir is not solely an American disease. The treatment of black women as spectacle enabled a particular instance of misogynoir, but it always existed in the global ether – in Africa, in Europe, in Asia, everywhere. Let me introduce you to Saartjie Baartman.
In 1810 Sarah (Saartjie) Baartman, a woman from South Africa, was taken to England for public display. She was named the ‘Hottentot Venus.’ Make no mistake, this is a derogatory name. She was exhibited as a “freak” in London and then Paris. This visualisation was on account of her African origin and the presumed particularities of her body. Her differences were evaluated in relation to European senses of self. Her most ‘exciting’ features were her alleged “steatopygia” (a condition resulting from the accumulation of fat in the buttocks) and the presence of the (mythical) “Hottentot apron” (the elongation of the genital labia). Misogynoir. White men and women flocked to see Sarah in abject fascination with the difference of Sarah’s black female body. She was treated like an animal. A collar was placed around her neck. She was made to gyrate and emphasise the black female body that so thrilled the audiences. She died in 1815 at the age of 26 of unknown causes.
The fascination with her anatomy continued after her death. Sarah’s corpse was given over to the French ‘scientist’ Georges Cuvier for scientific observation. Cuvier produced a plaster cast of her entire body and then removed her brain and genitalia in order to preserve them for display at his own private museum and later at the Muse de l’Homme. These remained on display until 1974. Around 1995, the post-apartheid South African government began agitating for the return of her remains to her place of origin. Her body was returned and buried in 2002. 2002!
Sarah Baartman’s humanity was erased. Her personhood disappeared into the silence. Her history is a cautionary tale to us of spectacle and fetishization. It tells us to snatch the narratives and scripts that dehumanise us from the ether and replay them over and over and over, make evident their monstrosities, till they are abandoned. As I write this I can still see in my mind’s eye the ‘article’ that proclaimed Serena Williams’ photoshoot in a bikini pornographic, the cardboard cutout of Diane Abbott (a long-serving politician) that someone thought would be humorous to pose in bed with, the hate-filled twitter messages sent to Gina Miller calling for her to be raped, the images of African women trafficked to Italy and other European countries, the brutalisation of women’s bodies in the name of tradition, in Africa, more than anywhere else, the reduction of black female personhood to a single function…. Misogynoir – the black female body as spectacle, as less than human. And make no mistake this is violence, it is a violence to the spirit and to the soul and ultimately a violence to the body. What we can demean, what we disparage, we ultimately destroy. Why would we revile what we do not intend for ruination?
So we need to talk about this. Because black women have made pain look beautiful, some think this should be our natural state. A flower is still a flower even when it fades, but how beautiful it is in full bloom. Sarah Baartman went back home in 2002. Let us talk, so we stop disappearing into silence. So we find peace. We are black women. We are more than this.
As part of the campaign to return Sarah Baartman home, Diana Ferrus, A South African poet wrote, A Poem For Sarah Baartman, which reads in part:
‘I have come to take you home
where the ancient mountains shout your name…
I have come to take you home
where I will sing for you…’
Black women deserve a safe place to go home to. Unlike Sarah Baartman, we don’t need campaigns to take us home. We want to find home. For ourselves. We are here. Here should be safe. Here should be home. No more silence.
- Bailey, Moya. “New Terms of Resistance: A Response to Zenzele Isoke.” Souls 15.4 (2013): 341-343.
- Bailey, Moya. “Misogynoir in Medical Media: On Caster Semenya and R. Kelly.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 2.2 (2016).
- Moudileno, Lydie. “Returning remains: Saartjie Baartman, or the “Hottentot Venus” as transnational postcolonial icon.” Forum for Modern Language Studies. Vol. 45. No. 2. Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Wiss, Rosemary. “Lipreading: Remembering Saartjie Baartman.” The Australian journal of anthropology 5.3 (1994): 11-40.