Black feminism

The Sable-Saffron Venus: Black Women’s Bodies Before Sara Baartman

The Sable-Saffron Venus represents the controlling image1 that affected Black women before the emergence of the “Hottentot Venus,” known as Sara Baartman:

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. [^2]


Before the introduction of Baartman, however, the image of the Sable-Saffron Venus defined Black womens bodies as sexually abnormal, thus using the racial other to define them as pathological. This image dominated perceptions of Black women in Europe and the Caribbean. According to this perception, Black women had a “hot constitution” and this “market woman” served best as a concubine or breeder, thus explaining White mens sexual preferences during that era. Various aspects of this imagery remain today in the controlling images of the welfare queen, strong black woman, and other stereotypes.

During the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Europeans replicated this image of Black women in paintings, poetry, and other cultural art forms. For instance, Thomas Stothard, an English painter, created the pictured artwork and titled it “The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies.” The iconography of Black women created during the early colonial era attempted to romanticize and eroticize the horrors of slavery and colonialism by casting the Black woman as willing, hypersexual body in need of taming. This sexualization of Black women’s bodies helped also to define notions of status and citizenship:

In both the Caribbean and Latin America the focus from Columbus onwards has been keeping the white ‘race’ white through ‘purity of blood’, controlling white women’s sexuality in the colonies and managing local mestizo/‘mixed race’ populations. This racism had its precursor in the Spanish reconquista which makes us remember that we cannot understand discourses of ‘race’ outside of the bio-politics of empire (Stoler, 1995) 2

Notions of Black women’s bodies revolve around their shape, size, and skin color. These controlling images helped put Black women in contrast to white femininity and thus served to justify the oppression Black women endured. This image of Black women remains today.

  1. Collins (1990, 2004) provides the theoretical framework with controlling images. Black women face four: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother and the Jezebel. 
  2. Page 5, Tate 2015