Colonialism and slavery serve as the foundation for the racialization of Black women’s bodies. At the dawn of colonialism Europeans used Black women’s bodies to mark race and gender boundaries for the national identities to reinforce white supremacy:
During enslavement, women of African descent were seen as having bodies made for reproduction, whether that was in providing sexual services, producing children or giving the labour necessary to ensure white leisure. As just bodies, lumps of flesh for consumption, they were displayed nude for sale at slave auctions and exhibited publicly or privately in the drawing rooms of the wealthy and aristocratic in Europe, as was the case for the Hottentot Venuses.1
For example, European travel writers described Black women’s bodies as monstrous. Further, they described West African women as dangerous, promiscuous, savage, and associated with witchcraft.
During the 19th century, the focus on Black women’s bodies shifted from their breasts to their butt. Saartje (Sarah) Baartman exemplifies this obsession. Europeans paraded Baartman around Europe as a carnival attraction. After she died, French scientist Georges Cuvier dismembered her body, reinforcing the notion that African bodies differed from Europeans. This same Cuvier started the earliest claims about Egyptians that dissociated them from their African roots.
Before the introduction of Baartman, the image of the Sable-Saffron Venus defined Black women’s bodies in terms of sexual abnormality and pathology:
Sarah Baartman shows us that the Black woman’s body has long been the object of pathological distortions in which it has been constructed as sexually abnormal and racially ‘other’ (Gilman, 1992; Crais and Scully, 2009). However, the Sable-Saffron Venus, which is the focus of this book, predates Baartman and as such was a context for her emergence and that of other images of the Black woman in the Caribbean and Europe.2
The Sable-Saffron Venus dominated perceptions of Black women in Europe and the Caribbean. This perception held Black women that since Black women were “naturally” sexually open, they should serve as concubines or breeders. Various aspects of this Sable-Saffron Venus persists today in the controlling images of the welfare queen, strong black woman, and other stereotypes.
Notions of Black women’s bodies revolve around their shape, size, and skin color. Further, these beliefs served as a contrast to beliefs about white femininity, which helped to justify the status of Black women:
If one assumes that these images derived from stereotypes generated by whites, it is already clear that dominant white perceptions of body size, shape and skin colour alongside assumptions of Black women’s psyches and productive/reproductive functions, were already being imprinted onto their racialized bodies constructed as the binary of the iconic frail, thin, asexual white femininity. Oppression was both rationalized and justified as white America, the white Caribbean and its metropoles projected what it feared about itself onto Black women’s bodies. 3
Stereotypes about Black women dissociate their identities from their actual lived experiences as dominating society treats them. Therefore, Black women’s bodies are part of a larger matrix of domination through which discourses of race, body politics, and aesthetic struggle to emerge as representations of Black womanhood.
According to Shirley Anne Tate, a professor of race and education, Black women do not take this manipulation in kind, but rather have attempted to develop “alter/native- bodies” that coexist with dominant views of ideal women’s bodies. Modern examples include women like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj.
Tate’s book Black Women’s Bodies and the Nation intends to speak against the “(post)colonial hygiene as a white racial practice which reproduces the Black woman’s body while it erases multiplicity and agentic counter practices”4. Tate’s position is that Black women’s bodies are often articulated through a white colonial gaze reproduced in media and academia.
Tate’s questions and observations point to the fact that though we live in postcolonial times, coloniality still impacts our understanding of Black women’s bodies. Her book develops a decolonial approach to looking at representations of Black women’s bodies within popular culture as an antidote to this continuing coloniality of power based on Eurocentrism. She also revisits the Sable-Saffron Venus as an agentic ‘alter/native body’ rather than a symbol of oppression.