Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Saartjie's Speech and the Sounds of National Identification

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Saartjie's Speech and the Sounds of National Identification

Article excerpt

There are two beginnings that sound this essay's themes. The first is Stephen Jay Gould's essay "The Hottentot Venus," an influential source for renewed interest in Saartjie ("Sarah" or "Sara") Baartman, which begins not with his discovery of Baartman's preserved genitalia at the Musee de l'Homme but with an anecdote on the importance of seeing differently. He recalls advising a classmate that while adults always looked up, "little folk" might "find all manner of valuable things on the ground if only we kept our gazes down" (291). Having learned, in adulthood, to look up as well as down, Gould discovers Baartman's genitalia on a shelf just above the brain of Paul Broca. (He found no women's brains or any male genitalia.) As the essay proceeds, an emphasis on vision becomes increasingly problematic, since Gould's sympathies never transcend a non-reciprocal gaze that reaffirms Baartman's purported racial and sexual otherness. Although he notes that Khoi-San "languages [...] were once dismissed as a guttural farrago of beastly sounds" but have since been "widely admired for their complexity and subtle expression" (300), Gould's prioritization of vision replicates the original dismissal of Baartman's voice by Georges Cuvier, whose autopsy report of her "mentions, in an off-hand sort of way, that Saartjie [...] spoke Dutch rather well" and had some familiarity with English and French (Gould 296, emph. mine). Framed through this visual logic, Gould's reflections continue an Enlightenment tradition in which visual observation is privileged over aural observation as bearer of scientific evidence, and thus they sustain Baartman's status as visual icon of racial and sexual difference.

A second beginning of significance here is that of Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel Hottentot Venus, which opens with "The Heroine's Note," a paragraph from Baartman's perspective explaining colonialism in South Africa and the origins of the appellation "Hottentot." After colonizing South Africa, the Dutch renamed the members of the Khoekhoe nation "Hottentots," an insult, equivalent to "nigger,""which means 'stutterer' in Dutch, because of the way [the Khoekhoe] language sounded to them" (xi, emph. mine). The Hottentot epithet refers not to the visual forms of difference through which race is often categorized but to less tangible forms of sonorous difference. This process of appellation attenuates the forms of identification available to Baartman and the narratives that she can construct, for, as she reveals, "to tell this, my true story, I was stuck with a name we didn't choose but must use so that those who gave us these names may listen" (xi, emph. mine). For Chase-Riboud, the visual scrutiny of Baartman's body represents a secondary form of scrutiny that substantiates her difference with more viable forms of "evidence," but that also necessarily succeeds the more ephemeral form of sonorous difference that the sounds of her voice construct.

During displays on English and French stages, Baartman was used to demonstrate visually ideological preoccupations with physical and cultural differences between Europeans and Africans, and Gould's essay does little to overturn that visual prejudice. However, Suzan-Lori Parks's play Venus and Chase-Riboud's Hottentot Venus use images of sound and speech to counter the visual demarcations between self and Other that her staged display was meant to reify. These texts forego the use of her sexual features as icons of racial and national difference and, instead, deploy the voice to renegotiate the terms of national identification. Baartman's speech moves her observers from the comfortable position of spectators to the uncomfortable one of audience compelled to acknowledge in her voice the lack of difference between spectacle and audience, between repudiated Other and national community. In these narratives, Baartman's speech problematizes national identifications during a series of deeply symbolic interactions with audiences at London's Piccadilly Circus, with a British court, and with Cuvier's troupe of naturalists at Paris's Jardin du Roy. …

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