From Jungle Fever to Black Panther: A Brief History of the Black Female Body
by Nike Taylor
“My Black African female body has been historically on a collision course with power, with masculinity, with whiteness, at times validating these presences but often refuting them. My body, therefore—my Black African female body—is a gloriously terrible fact, a weapon, a laboratory, an experiment, a theory, a cultural and global imperative, and always potentially disruptive…is my body subject or object? When is it subject? When is it object?”
—Performance artist Nora Chipaumire, The Black, African, Female, Body, at TEDxCalArts, 2014
We’re just past halfway through Women’s History Month and the high of big-screen Dora Milaje fierceness. Oh, Okoye. You complete me.
(Btw, author Nnedi Okorafor is writing a comic series about the Dora Milaje for Marvel. Mark your calendars, naija nerds).
But it’s hard to reconcile this powerful image of the Black woman with the Black woman perpetuated and perpetrated by the media. The Black woman you know leads governments and empires, is a warrior queen, wins, Nobel Prizes, invents stuff, inspires whole generations, and sells out the box office for Disney. She makes up half the African labour force and the five countries with the highest female labour share in the world are all in sub-Saharan Africa. She is formidable. But she is also invisible. Until she’s not; mainstream culture has stripped her of her intelligence and personality, and replaced with fungible physical parts.
We’re all too familiar with the two stereotypes of the Black woman that mainstream culture encourages. The first is the illiterate, powerless victim of deprivation and sexual mutilation, sexless baby factory, without personality. The second, her twin is a slow-witted “Jezebel”, angry instigator, perfidious seductress, without character. Both are unattractive, but their bodies are idolised—they are, in other words, fetishised. This racial fetishism has been carefully crafted by a complex history, its defining moment being the life of Sara Baartman.
All Pain and No Gain
Sara “Saartjie” Baartman. Born to a Khoisan family around 1790 in what is now South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Orphaned by adolescence, survives by working on settler farms. Married at some point with a baby, but baby dies after birth. Next, fiancé murdered by Dutch colonists when she’s 16, some say on their wedding day. Sold to a free Black (i.e., mixed-race and therefore not enslaved) trader and ends up as his brother-in-law’s property. Taken in 1810 by her master and his business partner to Georgian London’s Piccadilly to become an ethnological show exhibit—aka freak show—alongside the “The Living Skeleton” and the 19-inch “Sicilian Fairy” because she has a big ass. She is a sexual, racial, and scientific spectacle. She becomes the “Hottentot Venus”.
She becomes Kardashian famous.
Not that she wants this fame; as Evelleen Richards notes, “few ethnic exhibits [come] willingly or wittingly to England.”
Put in a flesh-coloured silk sheath cut to make her appear naked, she’s poked, prodded, ogled, examined, jeered at on stage, an object that elicits curiosity and fascination mingled with disgust and hatred. As Caroline Elkins explains, she “[becomes] an overnight sensation in London’s theatre of human oddities. Her body [is] the object of prurient gaze, scientific fascination, and disturbed bewilderment.” Even Victor Hugo gives her a shout-out in Les Miserables.
Old Master sells her to an animal trainer. He takes her to Paris in 1814. Here, she shares a cage with baby rhinoceros on stage and both perform for the leering crowd at the crack of her New Master’s whip. “More like a bear in a chain than a human being,” remarks an article in The Times. Sexual slavery, forced prostitution, violence, racist science, and degradation end with her death at just 26, in 1815, of causes no one bothers to note.
Prominent French anatomist Georges Cuvier dissects her, focusing on her “anomalous” buttocks and genitalia. He places her brain, skeleton, genitals, and a plaster cast of her naked body on display and there they remain for 159 years, until they’re taken down and kept in a back room in 1974. (Her remains still aren’t returned to South Africa until 2002, eight years after President Mandela requests repatriation; these last years of Baartman’s postmortem captivity see the French crafting a law to prevent their having to give up any other “artifacts” they acquired in the old days).
Richards describes Sara Baartman as “…a defining moment in the history of the medical construction of sexuality and an iconic instance of the Western exploitation of the female Black body.” Cuvier’s “scientific” obsession catalogued physical differences between the Black and white races, thereby corroborating European racial ideology and European standards of beauty that originally reinforced religious mores in ancient times. In the old days, outward perfection was a firm indicator of inward perfection and virtue, and virtue an indicator of beauty. Pretty is purity; ugly is sin. Gods, goddesses, God, are beautiful, perfect beings; monsters, devils, Satan, fairy tale villains are ugly, repulsive things. And so on. In the binary worldview of white society, the African woman, with her shockingly exposed body (because, hey, hot climate) was sinful and the physical differences between the idealised white woman and the deviating Black one supported archetypes and stereotypes that placed Africans at the bottom of the intellectual and human totem pole and further justified black subjugation.
Cuvier and the other ethnologists of his day used the anatomies of the Black women they examined—butts bigger, thighs thicker, and labias longer than their European counterparts—to buttress this entrenched image of an oversexed Black woman, with 19th century caricatures of Black women from that time, including those of Sara, egging on interest in this ethnological “science”. After all, Charles Darwin had already placed Africans at the bottom of the race ladder. As Efe Igor notes, “art in the service of science representationally created difference.”
And so it was that the African woman, with her comparatively exaggerated and voluptuous features, became the epitome of exotic sexual deviancy, surpassing the exotic Asian woman. We see this in the small number of artworks of the time that feature Black women—they were mostly ignored in historical Euro art—just as we see it in today’s art and media.
The Black woman has always been viewed as an acute instance of otherness, as European views of non-whites being “other” have long been normalised. (You qualify “man” with “Nigerian”, don’t you?) And “other” isn’t quite a person.
Otherness now informs how minorities see themselves, feeding the Black woman’s need to mimic her white version, normalising hair extensions, skin bleaching, makeup contouring, and other cosmetic overhauls. (Do you, though.) As she moves closer to “the norm”, she continues to be hypersexualised and commodified: it’s all butts implants, botoxed lips, (still) blonde cornrows, Nicki, Kim, Amber, Dolezal…and Goude’s Grace Jones.
Famed photographer Jean-Paul Goude told a 1979 People magazine interviewer that he was captivated by “ethnic minorities—Black girls, PRs. I had jungle fever” and that “Blacks are the premise of my work.” He continues his misshapen worship of the Black female form today, recreating his 1976 photo, Carolina Beaumont, New York, otherwise known as The Champagne Incident, for Kim Kardashian’s 2014 Paper cover.
That photo is one of the many heavily manipulated, racially skewed works collected in his 1982 book, Jungle Fever. Others include Jones, Goude’s then lover and always baby mama, naked on stage in a cage with the sign “DON’T FEED THE ANIMAL”, baring her teeth at a crowd of white men gaping at her—an image disturbingly reminiscent of Baartman’s caging before mostly-white-male crowds.
Sadly, Goude’s work continues to be hailed as revolutionary, its questionable racial underpinnings continue to be either rationalised by the art world, and his services continue to be prized by Black icons like Rihanna and Pharrell.
Black Girl Magic?
There is a ripple of change in the waters.
The works of Kenyan collage artist Wangechi Mutu, South African artist Lebohang Kganye, and Zimbabwean performance artist Nora Chipaumire are rooted in the power of the Black female form, subverting stereotypes and changing old narratives. The writings of Zadie Smith, Helen Oyeyemi, and Chimamanda Adichie reveal Black female brilliance. The works of Kemi Adetiba, Funke Akindele, Ngozi Onwurah, Michelle Bello, and Remi Vaughn-Richards, are changing Nigerian film. The groundswell of love for both Serena Williams’ body and the inexplicable Nigerian bobsled team is heart-warming. Michelle Obama is Michelle Obama.
The rising recognition of Black female creators, leaders, innovators, and their accomplishments, the success of blockbusters like Black Panther, the recognition of the need for intersectional feminism, the more insistent rejection of Black woman “otherness”—these trends point to a renaissance of the Black woman. She seems to finally be emerging.
Can she sustain her image rebirth? Or will this resurgence of Black femininity and feminism birth a new unwanted wave of fetishism and otherness? I guess we’ll see.
“…have we never stopped searching for that scantily clad totem goddess after all? We can pat ourselves on the back and feel disgusted by the story, and yet what made people leer at Baartman has the same effect on us today.”
—Marisa Meltzer, Venus abused, book review of African Queen: the Real Life of the Hottentot Venus
April 14, 2021