By Emily A. Phillips
In her well-known poem, “Venus Hottentot,” Elizabeth Alexander turns object into subject, shifting the privileged perspective from the audience who in the 19th century gazed on the body of Saartjie Baartman with horrific fascination to that of Baartman herself, full of pain and rage at being made a spectacle for the colonizer’s consumption. In doing so, she displaces power and gives the Venus Hottentot the ability to exact justice on her aggressor(s).
Alexander begins with a spotlight on Cuvier, one of the many scientists who attempted to use anatomy to define national identity. Rather than portraying a rational man of fact and inquiry, Alexander turns Cuvier into a mad scientist who, surrounded by dismembered human bodies, believes that “Everything is beautiful,” highlighting his translation of subject into object (italics mine).
In the second part of the poem Alexander turns to Baartman, portraying the hope she held regarding the wealth promised her and her disillusionment at the reality of London carnival life. She left her home “with a promise / of revenue” and dreamed that “I would return to my family / a duchess…” Alexander juxtaposes Baartman’s dreams of “watered-silk,” “rouge,” “cerulean blue,” an “sugar-studded non-pareils,” with London circuses that are “florid and filithy / swarming with cabbage-smelling / citizens who stare…”
Alexander next moves from the gaze of the London carnival audience to the even more horrific evaluation of Baartman by Cuvier, who “investigates / between my legs, poking, prodding, / sure of his hypothesis.” Believing her to be ignorant, he “complains / at my scent and does not think / I comprehend, but I speak / English. I speak / a little French as well, and / languages Monsieur Cuvier / will never know have names.” Thus, Alexander creates a scene of mockery as Cuvier, a man made famous because of his mind rather than his body, is transformed into a heartless, foolish monster who has no true understanding of that which he “investigates.”
In the final stanza of the poem, Alexander empowers her Baartman to dream of taking Cuvier’s “knives and cut out his black heart, / seal with science fluid inside / a bell jar, place it on a low / shelf in a white man’s museum.” By shifting the gaze from her own body to Cuvier’s “…shriveled and hard, / geometric, deformed, unnatural,” heart, she reveals not fact but truth, and in doing so portrays what is truly horrific: the objectification of the African woman’s body.
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Emily A. Phillips, a contributing writer for Black Studies @ SIUE, is currently pursuing her PhD in American Literature at Saint Louis University.