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Sara Baartman

18 June 2021

4 mins

by Keisha Vinda

Sara Baartman. Sara Baartman. Sara Baartman. I always intended for my dissertation topic to be representative of myself as not only a woman, but a black woman. I wrote this dissertation so that the history of Sara Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from the Cape who was exhibited in Europe, could be heard. Black women should no longer be lost voices throughout the historical record.

The first chapter of my dissertation focuses on the exhibition of Sara Baartman in both London and France. I focus on the way in which her body was ‘othered’ by audiences and subjected to a voyeuristic gaze against her will. The agency of Baartman can be uncovered via court documents where witnesses expressed her disapproval of her exhibition through her demeanour and body language. It provided insight into Baartman’s own views regarding her exhibition which humanises her historical record.

Chapter two focuses on the exhibition of Baartman’s body after her death. I discuss how even in death the exploitation and subjection of harm onto the black female body continues. Whilst alive Baartman’s body was used to entertain public audiences, in death it was used to entertain prying French scientists who would use her body as a specimen to inform the scientific world of the supposed inferiority of the African female body.

The final chapter of my dissertation focuses on Baartman’s legacy and the way in which we can draw parallels between her story and that of black women in modern society. I chose to refer to Caster Semenya and Serena Williams due to the fact that they are two black women in modern society who are mistreated or ‘othered’ due to the way their bodies look. Both women have been plagued by misogynoir due to their bodies and the meanings that are attached to them due to not upholding stereotypical Western standards of femininity and beauty.

The research process for my dissertation consisted of searching through various archives such as the National Archives and the British Library to discover various nineteenth century primary sources. The primary sources that make up my dissertation include caricatures, newspaper extracts, poems, photographs and court documents.

What fascinated me the most about Sara Baartman? The little that we hear about her. I was able to write a whole dissertation about this person yet eighteen months before writing about her, I didn’t even know she existed. Being presented with the task of writing a dissertation allowed me to learn so much about this woman and I am so thankful. I have shared this story with family and friends of which all shared the same level of fascination.  There was no other topic I could’ve written about other than this one. It’s important. It hits close to home. It made me think.

This dissertation topic is based on someone from the past but with so many parallels to our present. I wrote this dissertation with the hope that it will encourage others to speak up for black women throughout history, and let their stories be heard.

Bio: My name is Keisha Vinda, I enjoyed 4 years of study at Loughborough University where I completed my bachelor’s degree in History. I have recently graduated and am currently in the process of training as a history teacher. The course at Loughborough allowed me to explore a range of different histories which provided me with the necessary skills to become a better historian. My time at Loughborough has undoubtedly strengthened my love for studying History due to the independence offered to students with regard to the direction of which they choose to take their research.

Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

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