Blackness, history & love · Books · Gender · Performance & Arts

Language of the body

Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular CultureVenus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture by Janell Hobson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We only need to remember Sara Baartman to realise that a slogan such as ‘Black is beautiful’ is never superficial and always political.

The treatment of Sara Baartman, the original embodiment of the ‘Hottentot Venus’, a Khoisan woman who was brought from South Africa to England and Paris around 1810 and exhibited is the jumping off point for this academic work. Hobson first investigates and critiques the construction of black female beauty/sexuality by white supremacy. I was struck by the points she makes about the ‘disability’ of black female bodies, drawing on the writing of Rosemarie Garland Thomas who pointed out that women strive to beautify themselves with cosmetics, surgery, diets, exercise and so on as if their unmodified bodies are disabled and unhealed, needing treatment. This relates to the pathologisation of black women’s bodies (and black men’s sexuality), BUT in ways that white women are immobilised as weak and ‘objectified’ in their constructed disability, black women are cast as physically able; strong and fertile and suitable for exploitation. White feminist Frances Dana Gage perpetuated this trope in her description of Soujourner Truth ‘rescuing’ white women with her inspiring speech. Another useful idea is Bakhtin’s notion of the ‘carnivalesque’ body that has a ‘right to be other’, a fragile claim to a sort of fetishised outsider allure, but is kept at a distance from serious beauty standards.

In chapter 2 Hobson looks at some of the imagery that presented black women in Baartman’s time, noting that even abolitionist cartoons and posters perpetuated tropes of racial and sexual difference, reprising the violence they were meant to condemn. This is important, because it still happens! She further discusses scientific racism and the use of photography and other methods to ‘prove’ the racist theories projected onto black bodies by white supremacy. This theme runs right through the book, as it impacts all attempts to represent black women, restricting the cultural (and semiotic) space they can occupy.

Chapters three and five critically analyse some artistic, literary and dramatic responses by black women to the Hottentot Venus trope, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Hobson also critiques the mainstream/white feminist focus on the vagina, quoting Oyeronke Oyewumi (who is critical of Alice Walker’s and other African-American women’s writing on Africa) who points out that ‘even apparently similar body parts have different histories and locations’. Hobson suggests that we need dialogues not ‘vagina monologues’ which have limited potential for self-empowerment and lead to narcissistic self-absorption (and also, I note, exclude women who don’t have vaginas) rather than ‘collective actions that move us forward’. Black women artists, such as Carrie Mae Weems, have articulated complex emotional responses to experiences of slave women, calling on audiences to recognise their humanity and subjectivity.

Chapter four, ‘The Batty Politic’ is awesome! Hobson examines the black ‘batty’ (Jamaican slang for backside) as a site of resistance for black women who have endeavoured to decolonise their bodies. In some regions of Africa, women have historically expressed protest by publicly removing their clothes. Interestingly, Salman Rushdie has Kashmiri women, traditionally unveiled whether Muslim or Hindu, successfully using the same strategy against soldiers sent to make them put on burkhas in Shalimar the Clown. They bounce back the shame projected onto them, revealing whose sexuality really needs to be reigned in.

Dance scholar Kariamu Welsh Asante suggests that ‘African’ aesthetics tend towards appreciating the language of the body, while ‘Western’ aesthetics focus on the form of the body. It is easy to see how displays of the body and African dance styles, which use the ‘all the features of the female body in the total range of symbolism, natural functions and aesthetic values associated with them’ (quote from dance scholar Patience Abenaa Kwakwa) have been historically misread through a prism of Euro-centric Christian morality and scientific racism. The narrative of lewd primitiveness tends to be re-inscribed on the body of any black woman who wears revealing clothes or dances seductively, ensuring that those bodies are ridiculed rather than revered and celebrated.

Hip-hop culture has attempted to reverse the narrative, but often reinforces stereotypes and the black/white dichotomy. Hip-hop scholar Imani Perry points out that black dance is discursive, combining sexuality with humour and centring on bodies conversing with each other, while most hip-hop videos present a two-dimensional derivative of this rich tradition, pandering to male desire.

Yet some women dancehall and hip-hop artists and film-makers have presented serious challenge to the ‘comforting voyeuristic gaze’. And some have also resisted the respectability politics used to suppress (often for survival of course) the supposedly excessive sexuality of black bodies. They have also recognised the dynamic nature of culture; Ngozi Onwurah’s film Mondays Girls affirms BOTH traditional- and modern- aligned decisions made by Nigerian girls.

Hobson suggests solutions for the misinterpretation of black female bodies and the requirements projected onto them to respond to the requests of others rather than to self-motivated desires and expressions:

‘We may need to recreate that circle of women – first enacted in childhood – who reaffirm that our bodies are fine, normal, capable and beautiful. We may also need to enlarge that circle to include men, who can challenge their own objectifying gazes, and nonblacks, who can overcome the equation of blackness with deviance. Most of all black women… must confront the prevailing imagery of grotesque derrieres and black female hypersexuality to distinguish the myths and lies from our own truths and the ways we wish to represent ourselves’

In discussing black beauty queens, Hobson mentions that in 1968 white feminists staged a protest against the Miss America pageant while simultaneously a group of African Americans held a ‘positive protest’ by hosting the first Miss Black America pageant. If I were there, which protest would I have attended? Hobson points out (as Andrea Smith has elsewhere) that transnational solidarity between Women of Colour means African American women could consider how their actions affect others elsewhere, for example if they join the US military they will be used to further imperialist foreign policy. Widening the circle of solidarity, I am trying to work out how white feminists like me can support black women’s efforts towards liberation, rather than, as we historically have, getting in the way…

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