Black women’s bottoms entered the global body market via erotic capital reproduced through surgery or stylization. Historian Shirley Anne Tate argues Black women’s bottoms represent a turning away from politics of respectability. Tate concludes that the bottom is a space for dialogical critique and body interchanges among women. Simultaneously, the bottom serves as a space of desire and shame for the Black women as an object:
The white male gaze re-created the Black woman’s body as a powerless site in which his hegemonic discourses could maintain claims of white superiority. This was essential as if the women were inferior then the whole ‘race’ was infra-human and Black men were negated.1
The sexual excess of the body holds a value constrained only by spending power. White men tried to regulate Black women’s agency through the Sable-Saffron Venus imagery, created through the populist racial theory that depicted their bodies as inferior and reified Black women’s bodies as a commodity. For women, this means that the decolonization begins when larger bottoms serve as a form of erotic capital.
For example, Serena Williams’ bottom becomes an object of desire, fascination, celebration and the grotesque. Black women’s bodies seen through a lens of White gaze are unruly, deviant hypersexuality. Nevertheless, as a tennis superstar, Williams’ body replaces the White female body as iconic.
Still, society embraces the bottoms of women like Kim Kardashian, going so far as to associate this aesthetic with a type of Blackening. Defining white women’s body this way meant they do not compete with Black bodies for self-definition:
The reactions to both Williams and Kardashian illustrate the hidden ‘aesthetic labour’ (Gruys, 2012) and affective labour of Black women’s bottoms as they negotiate competing cultural repertoires of white, middle-class, heterosexual and Black aesthetic worlds where bottoms are kept under control in order to be respectable.2
Kim Kardashian isn’t the only White woman to have embraced Black women’s aesthetics for her own gain. White women view their bodies in terms of a lack to which the Black woman’s bottom can easily translate. The creation of bustles for dresses allowed White women to masquerade with an illusion of Black women’s bottoms, thus transforming its meaning from grotesque to luxury and beauty. As always, for the bottom to assume an unfettered sexual allure as an object of desire, it had to be embraced by White women so as to assume.
The revalorization of Black women’s bottoms as a commodity in the bustle thus amounts to a cannibalization of Black woman’s bottoms for white women’s consumption, maintained through a simultaneous estrangement from racial difference:
Through the bustle the Black woman’s bottom was made into a fetish object by commodity capitalism. Thus, its value as body part and object was measured by the cost and popularity of the bustle as the manufactured Black bottom that moved across the colour line. The Hottentot Venus’s bottom only increased in aesthetic and monetary value when it was repackaged as a white object of desire to emphasize white rears, an act in which even middle- and upper-class respectable women as well as burlesque performers participated (Brown, 2008).3
The appropriation of Black women’s bodies happened again with the fashions of the flapper and social dance “The Black Bottom,” the precursor to the Charleston and Lindy Hop. The name of the dance referred to black neighborhoods in small southern towns. Composed by Perry Bradford, the song and dance originated from Black people in New Orleans. George White took the dance from a Harlem dance halls and later introduce it to White people who popularized it and altered it for the ballroom.
European travel writers who wrote about visits to Africa also described Black women’s bottoms as a spectacle and fetish object. European writers turned to Black women’s bodies as evidence of cultural inferiority and racial difference. The silencing of Black women’s bodies emerged with prohibitions on fornication, adultery, and sodomy. This silence helped quiet anxiety over miscegenation by portraying Black women as loose and lacking European, Christian monogamous morality.
Enslavement made Black women’s bodies a site of domination, but Black women tried to reclaim it as a site of resistance. They used somatic politics to see their bodies as a source of pleasure, pride. Black women reenvisioned their bodies outside of the representation on Black women’s bottom amplified through white male discourse.
For example, Queen Nanny of the Maroons gets represented through her bottom as a tool of resistance:
She was an excellent military strategist, a chieftainess who passed down African music, customs and language to her people and was said to be an obeah woman. Such was her leadership, power, cunning and fame that she is reputed to have caught bullets with her bottom and shot them back at the British! To show your bottom to the enemy in this way and to use it as a weapon underlies the agency of the bottom in Jamaican culture in which showing the bottom is a sign of deep disrespect as it communicates disgust and contempt. 4
Black women have long refused to allow their bodies to represent what Whiteness is not.Yet even in death, Black women’s bodies represented deviant sexuality in the 19th century. Saartje Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman, contracted by exhibitors Hendrik Cezar and Alexander Dunlop continued to earn them profit after her death. They put her body on display in museums and scientists dissected her genitals from her body for research. ––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––
1 Tate 2015: 50
2 Tate 2015: 49
3 Tate 2015: 53
4 Tate 2015: 52