Dzifa Benson writes on contemporary and historical perceptions of black women’s bodies

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I was 17 when I first experienced racially charged body-shaming.

Your bottom is too big! Emma, hurled these words at me, seemingly out of nowhere. Blonde, outspoken and supremely confident, Emma was everything that I – newly arrived from Ghana and wrestling with culture-shock – was not. At the time, she was the closest thing I had to a best friend, and I suppose I took my cues from her when it came to navigating the unfamiliar new world I found myself thrust into.

Although I was born in London, I grew up in West Africa – Nigeria, Ghana and Togo – between the ages of 6 and 17. So, unlike the experience of many other British black people, I had spent my formative years in societies where black people like me were represented at all strata of society. My body-type had never been questioned, and I had never experienced direct racism. Although I couldn’t fully articulate why Emma’s statement disturbed me, and whilst I couldn’t deliver a suitable retort at the time, the disquiet of what she said niggled away in the back of my brain. Several months later, as Whitney’s Houston’s self-titled debut album was topping the music charts, Emma and I were strolling to the shops near our sixth-form college during our lunch break.

‘Whitney Houston is so beautiful!’ I said. ‘Don’t you think so?’

Emma casually responded: ‘I suppose she’s alright for a black woman’.

Again, I was so taken aback by what Emma had said that I didn’t respond in the moment. But the microaggression afforded me a moment of epiphany, putting her pronouncement about my bottom into perspective. I realised that Emma thought I was inferior to her simply because I was black and she was white. Having been brought up in West Africa, where the colour of my skin was the norm, this was my first true inkling that, as a black woman, the world-at-large considered me to be less attractive than women of other races.

I distanced myself from Emma after that.

But her words – your bottom is too big – stayed with me for years. Too big for what? I would wondered. To sit on? To power a jog? To be human? An opportunity to unpack the thorny issue presented itself when I decided to pitch an article about black women and body-image to Trace, a new lifestyle magazine with the tagline ‘transcultural styles and ideas’ that, unusually, centred black people and their artistic achievements. For my article, I set out to identify synonyms for ‘bottom’ for each letter of the alphabet. This is how I discovered the story of Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman – AKA the Hottentot Venus.

Saartjie Baartmann was a Khoikhoi woman who was brought to Britain in 1810. She was displayed in human zoos here and in Paris. The distinguishing feature that made her such a crowd-pulling attraction was her steatopygic bottom. When she died in Paris, in 1815, George Cuvier – who is considered the father of palaeontology and established the science of comparative anatomy – managed to get hold of her body. He dissected the cadaver, pickled her brain and pudenda in formaldehyde, and made a life-sized cast of her body for people to go and gawk at in the Musée de l’Homme until 1972. Some years after Baartman died, Cuvier would go on to publish a book purporting to catalogue the mammals of the world. Baartman was the only human being featured in the book, in which Cuvier concluded that Baartmann was only just above an orangutan on the Great Chain of Being, a pernicious totem pole of comparative anatomy that placed white people at the top of humanity and only below God and the angels. By portraying Baartman as animalistic, Cuvier reinforced notions of white supremacy, and helped give legitimacy to pseudo-scientific ideas of race propagated by eugenicists in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries.

Baartman’s remains would have stayed in Paris if Nelson Mandela hadn’t instigated the process of their repatriation to South Africa with Francois Mitterand. Her remains were finally returned and laid to rest in 2002 on a hilltop in the small town of Hankey, close to where she was born. Her story inspired ‘Bottom Power’, the second poem I ever wrote, which has become something of a manifesto or mission statement for me. It’s a witty, defiant and incisive poem that I fully intended to use as a means of skewering the notion that has persisted since Cuvier’s time that black people, and black women especially, are sub-human. When I perform it in public, women tell me afterwards that it makes them feel empowered, and that they will never again think of their bodies in negative terms. When I performed the poem in Cape Town (where Baartman lived before her fateful trip to Europe), during a British Council tour in 2010, a woman in the audience asked me what I thought that Baartman’s response would be if she could hear the poem. Regretfully, I had never before considered that question. But it has since inspired me to make her the subject of the poetry collection I am currently working on. Since her death, Baartman, in the guise of the Hottentot Venus, has been many things: a subject for scientific study, a feminist agenda, and a symbol of South Africa’s quest for racial parity – but never just as herself, Saartjie Baartman. Reams and reams of articles and academic papers have been written about her, but I have never read anything that is in her own words. There is almost nothing in the historical records to indicate who she might have been as a person. My poetry aims to counteract that – it attempts to restore her humanity.

The most striking thing that I discovered while researching Baartman’s story is how greatly pejorative ideas about black womanhood have persisted in the 200 years since she died. Black women are supposedly sexually voracious, domineering; they can supposedly bear any burden, and feel less pain during childbirth than white women. The stereotypical way that black women are portrayed in the media further embeds these erroneous ideas. For me, those ideas have manifested themselves in myriad microaggressive ways. They did so when a friend of a friend who I thought was becoming my friend recoiled in revulsion when I tried to dance with him at his party. They did so when white men told me they had jungle fever, speculated about how curvaceous I must be, or referred to me using references to food. Given this deep history of prejudice, it’s no coincidence that black women are statistically considered to be the least attractive group of women to date, both online and offline, by all races.

George Floyd’s murder and the protests that have followed have helped to push inequality based on race to the top of the global agenda. But many anti-racist strategies inevitably tend to centre black men.  Black women have a double minority status, and that is what I hope to use the power of literary prowess to resist and counteract.

Dzifa Benson is a poet, dramatist, journalist and Ledbury Poetry critic who is currently studying for an MA in Text and Performance at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Birkbeck University. The intersections between art, science, the body, ritual and digital technologies animate her practice, which she explores through poetry, theatre, opera, performance, storytelling and journalism.

Her poetry and literary and arts journalism have appeared in a number of publications and she was an artist-in-residence at the Courtauld Institute of Art, a core artist in BBC Africa Beyond’s multimedia collaborative project, Translations, and a director on Shrinking Space’s The Wonder Project in association with Kew Gardens. She is currently developing a transmedia project, The Spit of Me, an artistic, social, biological and digital exploration of the body’s relationship with time, culture, identity, memory and migration.

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