The spring 1989 issue of Callaloo includes, as the lead poem, Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Venus Hottentot,” which would become one of her most well-known and widely cited pieces. The appearance in Callaloo was important, yet the poem received even more attention when it was published as part of Alexander’s first volume The Venus Hottentot and reviewed in The New York Times in 1990.
The Venus Hottentot was published by the University of Virginia Press as part of its Callaloo Poetry series. The coverage of Alexander’s book in the Times was remarkable for at least a four reasons. The Times rarely reviews: 1. volumes of poetry. 2. works by black writers. 3. first books by poets 4. volumes published by non-commercial or large presses.
Somehow, Alexander and her book overcame those odds, and the review of The Venus Hottentot in the Times raised the possibility that her work would gain more attention than poets -- African American and otherwise -- typically receive.
The first part of Alexander’s poem is told from the perspective of French scientist Georges Cuvier who delights in studying his specimen Saartjie Baartman, also known as the "Venus Hottentot" and the "Hottentot Venus," who was exhibited for audiences in Paris and London. Cuvier announces at one point that Baartman's "genitalia / will float inside a labeled /pickling jar in the Musée / de l’Homme on a shelf."
In the second part of the poem, Alexander gives voice to Baartman who points out that "I am a black cutout against / a captive blue sky, pivoting / nude so the paying audience / can view my naked buttocks." She goes on to describe her place among a lineup of other supposed oddities in a circus sideshow.
Later, she discusses Cuvier who "investigates / between my legs, poking, prodding, / sure of his hypothesis." Cuvier insults Baartman and thinks she cannot understand, "but I speak / English. I speak Dutch. I speak / a little French as well, and / languages Monsieur Cuvier / will never know have names."
Alexander bestowed Baartman with a voice and level of intellect that had not been highlighted as much in past historical treatments of the Venus Hottentot. Accordingly, the poem coincided with the spirit of militancy and black pride that were prevalent in poetry that circulated during the Black Arts era and with the dual critiques of racism and sexism often addressed among black feminists.
Doris Jean Austin's review of Alexander's book in the New York Times had noted that "the current proliferation of benign, yet soothing works of poetry gives 'The Venus Hottentot' a particularly exhilarating quality." Austin's comment suggests that Alexander's work was a welcome contrast or alternative to the genteel poetry of the day.
In the history of African American poets and verse, Alexander and her volume came to represent an important link between previous generations of writers and the group of younger "literary" poets just beginning to distinguish themselves on a national level during the mid to late 1990s. Over the last decade, large numbers of poets have pursued research in order to produce full-length volumes of persona poems based on black historical figures. Alexander's "The Venus Hottentot" was no doubt a modern prototype for the kind of works that we are now witnessing.
Looking back, Alexander and her poem were important connectors in the developing histories of African American poetry.
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