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What Can The Story Of Saartjie Baartman Teach Us? Part 2 - The Thickness

By KIRKLAND PRATT

In the last ThinkUp column, I introduced Saartjie Baartman, a South African, Khoi Khoi woman who was coerced into early travel to England when she was “discovered” by a British ship doctor William Dunlop. Saartjie boarded a boat to set sail from her home of Cape Town to London in 1810. She was 20, and completely unaware of the iconic status that she would single-handedly shape for black female sexuality for the next 100 years. Baartman was born in 1789; she was working as a slave in Cape Town.

As told in her story that has been etched in history, Saartjie was dragged out to squat before the mob at 225 Piccadilly. The show promoters billed her genitals as resembling the skin that hangs from a turkey’s throat. For several years, working-class Londoners crowded in to shout vulgarities at the protruding buttocks and large vulva of the unfortunate woman made famous across Europe as the “Hottentot Venus”.

I drew the parallels about Saartjie’s plight of conformity and derogating forcible performance to that of many contemporary Bahamian woman who have enabled many of the theoretically same antics of the mob at 225 Piccadilly, but under complete free will.

In 2001, one of my favourite artists American neo-soul singer and poet Jill Scott released a dub poetry track called The Thickness on her early album “Experience: Jill Scott 826+”. In her sobering recording, produced before a live audience Scott details the objectification of a “young, tender, supple and fine” black teenaged girl and the later effects. Scott scorns the men who ogle her, and those who have ogled young girls just like her, by poetically narrating in explicit, unsettling detail their sexually charged and objectifying thoughts.

In “Thickness” Scott says: “She so big! Won’t nobody even try to reach her mind. Age 14, eyes green, young tender, supple, and fine. Hear them, all those oohs and ahhs slip as she lick her lips. Oh, they want to [sex] her!” Because our ideals of beauty have been filtered and warped throughout history, many of us process the same through cross-cultural prisms. Are our men to blame for the pressure that many women feel to lengthen their hair with softer imported 100% virgin human hair, real time eye lashes, clown make up and Eurocentric make up? Conversely, the pressure for men to conform to a European standard of attractiveness is non existent. As a matter of fact, I am sure that any suggestion to the same will elicit dogmatic opposition.

So why have we inadvertently resurrected Saartjie’s legacy and made our women to personify the same? We are free now – remember? What message are mothers sending to their impressionable daughters when they plait in the extensions? When every hairstyle screams that length is pretty? What are parents subliminally encoding into the psyche of their children when they encourage their sons and daughters to pull up their broad noses to grow straighter and apply lightening topical creams to their faces and bodies?

Scott offers some insight as to what may also lend to the perception entrapment that holds both men and women of colour in a state if image-robbing flux. “Cause she so big won’t nobody even try to reach her mind. She’s been degraded, exploited, not celebrated. Saturated with self hatred. Let me say that again please: She’s been degraded, exploited, not celebrated. Saturated with self hatred, Cause every time she turns on the TV, What does she see, big ol’ booty, and it don’t have nothing to do with the song, Thus, her definition of beauty, Thus, her definition of beauty.”

According to Adams, Terri M.; Fuller, Douglas B. (2006), content analyses have found that approximately 22% to 37% of rap lyrics contain some misogyny, depending on sub genre. Likewise, some female rappers assume the role of the “’ride-or-die’ chick” who is frequently praised by male rappers as the ideal woman. The “’ride-or-die’ chick”, according to hip hop scholar Gwendolyn Pough, is a woman who will do anything for men, even commit crimes and go to prison, to be valued. Within the black hip-hop climate many female rap artists elect to encourage the derogation of their counterparts for popularity – this culture is all to socially and detrimentally cyclic; oftentimes widening the divide in constructive and progressive dialogue between genders within the black community.

The poem/song continues but rather than digressing purely into male-bashing territory--and at just the right moment—Jill Scott turns her attention toward the young protagonist, explaining (twice) how she’s been: “degraded, exploited, not celebrated...” not just by men but by entertainment media. Her self-worth is as fractured as the disembodied “booties” and “breasts” that “don’t have nothing to do with the song.” …just like Saartjie.

Awareness of socialization, intrinsic values, historical influences and challenging the conventional rapport may thrust those tethering on social unconsciousness into a different progressive mindset. It is my hope that we begin the discussions that enable us to rise here in the Bahamas. We can only win through it.

Keep thinking though, you are good for it!

• Kirkland H. Pratt, MSCP, is a Counselling Psychologist with a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology with an emphasis in Education. He lectures in Industrial Psychology and offers counselling and related services to individuals and businesses. For comments, contact kirklandpratt@gmail.com.

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