Sunday, January 31, 2016

Elizabeth Alexander's Venus Hottentot & John Keene's Miss La La

Miss La La
What might Elizabeth Alexander's Venus Hottentot and John Keene's Miss La La say if they encountered each other? I was inclined to consider that question recently as I reflected on Alexander's well-known poem "The Venus Hottentot" and Keene's short story "Acrobatique" in his collection Counternarratives (2015).

Saartjie Baartman (1789 – 1815), known by her stage name the Venus Hottentot, of South Africa, became an indentured servant and was exhibited/exploited in "freak shows" in Europe. In her poem, Alexander gave voice to a woman who had largely been silenced by racism, sexism, colonialism, history.

Alexander's poem, first published in 1989 and then the next year in a volume of the same name, is particularly important in the modern and contemporary histories of African American persona poems. Alexander provided an up-to-date blueprint of what it might mean for poets to give voice to previously silenced or mis-characterized black people from the past. 

Anna Olga Albertina Brown, known by her stage name Miss La La, was a black aerialist and all-around circus performer, who was born in 1858 and lived beyond 1919, which is the last known record of her U.S. passport application. She worked as a high-wire walker, a strength artist, and trapeze artist. Linda Simon, notes in The Greatest Shows on Earth: A History of the Circus, that Miss La La was "all the rage in Paris in 1879 for her iron jaw act."

During the iron jaw act, while suspended from rafters, Miss La La would grip an iron and leather bit with her teeth and lift heavy objects. Over the course of her career, she was known by many stage names, including “Olga the Mulatto,” “Olga the Negress”, "The African Princess," and “The Venus of the Tropics." She is perhaps best known as the subject of Edgar Degas's famous painting Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879), which captures a moment where she is suspended in the air from a rope by her teeth. Keene's "Acrobatique" takes Degas's painting as a point of departure and imagines the experience of being a black acrobat from the perspective of Miss La La.

Under quite different circumstances, both black women -- the Venus Hottentot and The Venus of the Tropics -- toured Europe in circus or circus-like environments during the 19th century. Alexander's poem and Keene's short story prompt us to consider what it means for contemporary writers to imagine the inner thoughts of black women whose voices largely elude the historical record.    
A notebook on Elizabeth Alexander  
 • A notebook on John Keene

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