Better known as the exotic, freakish “Hottentot Venus” than as the woman behind the image, Sara Baartman is more characterized by the five years she was on display in Europe than by the other two decades of her life. This month, two Emory faculty members published a biography of her life.
“Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography” is a study of one of the most famous but least-known women in the world.
Baartman’s exhibition as the “Hottentot Venus” throughout England and France from 1810 and 1815 shaped the ideas of sex, race and women. Her image was characterized by large buttocks and an elongated labia, which was not exhibited until after her death, when not only her genitals, but also her brain and other remains were displayed in a French museum until the late 20th century.
Inspired by an article about the Hottentot Venus written by Emory Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences Sander Gilman, Professor of History Clifton Crais and his wife, Professor of Women’s Studies Pamela Scully, first raised questions about who the woman behind this icon was during a course they taught at Kenyon College.
“Being historians of South Africa, we knew if we looked through the records we could find something,” Scully said. “We couldn’t conflate Baartman with the Hottentot Venus. Whether or not she performed willingly, that still wasn’t her.”
Crais said that although Baartman was only in Europe for five years, those years have become indicative of her entire life. Scully attributes this to the construction of academics of the day.
“It used to be that if you did European history, you didn’t know much about African history and vice versa,” Scully said. “She only became famous when she moved to Europe. Those who studied European history did not have a great interest in her life in Africa.”
Because of the little documented information on her life before her fame in Europe, Crais and Scully said that it was both a difficult and exciting history to explore. They said that even the smallest piece of evidence was a key to more information.
“Even a tax roll about someone who employed Baartman allowed you to find out where they lived, which would then tell you where Baartman lived,” Scully said. “It was really quite exciting. It was a eureka moment; it made the project something that was possible to do.”
Crais said that each discovery was thrilling to him.
“It was really tedious, but every time we found something, it was exhilarating,” Crais said. “It could be just a little shred, and I’d be jumping up and down.”
This project, Crais said, is particularly distinctive because it is unlike any other biography, which typically begins with a certain amount of set information and done with research just to tie the loose ends together. For Baartman’s biography, he said, he and Scully had the loose ends and gathered the body of the information from there.
Despite the complexity of the research that spanned from early 2003 to 2007, the writing served as the biggest obstacle to the couple. Crais and Scully wanted to write in a coherent style so that the book would not have two different voices.
“We had to find a way that would retain the strengths of both of our styles,” Scully said. “Clifton writes more lyrically, and my writing style is more clear.”
Crais objected to this description, but Scully assured him that she was just complimenting his poetic style. They said they were able to overcome this obstacle because they both had the same goal in mind.
“We didn’t want to dumb things down and write a kind of pop history,” Crais said. “But we also didn’t want to write a standard kind of academic jargon.”
Although the biography is focused on the woman behind the public image, Crais said that refraining from crossing a certain boundary was challenging.
“There was still the temptation to be drawn towards the icon like others were,” Crais said. “That’s where all the evidence is. How do you write with just a few fragments without over-interpreting?”
Crais and Scully said that being careful not to overstep boundaries was particularly difficult in this case because of the close relationship between Baartman and her role as the Hottentot Venus. This relationship led them to call their work not only a biography, but also a “ghost story,” they said.
Crais said that while the Hottentot Venus does not really exist, history knows more about the icon than it does the woman behind it.
Scully said that calling the work a ghost story also alludes to the way her legacy still “haunts” the contemporary era, even though the Hottentot Venus is a symbol of the past.
“It’s a ghost-like presence,” she said. “We try not to think about it, but this racism and sexuality still has a place in society. Women continue to be abused … all sorts of terrible things.”
Crais and Scully said this book is an all-encompassing biography that has an academic purpose and serves as general knowledge. Scully said the book spans many academic fields, including history, comparative literature, women’s studies and English.
“We knew there would be a wide readership,” Scully said. “We would be at the dentist’s office, and people would ask, ‘And then what happened? And then? And really?’”
According to Crais, the endeavor was also an ethical and political project.
“The vast 99.9 percent of humanity does not leave a corpus of records,” Crais said. “So how do we write about those billions and billions of people? We wanted to honor history in a way that didn’t capture it.”
— Contact Alice Chen.