The Venus Hottentot: Elizabeth Alexander Reads Her Stirring Poem About the Roots of Racism and the Misuses of Science
By Maria Popova
In the early nineteenth century, a young South African woman named Saartje Baartman went to Europe with her employer, a free black man, and an English doctor. There, she began being exhibited at freak show attractions on account of her large buttocks — a feature whose possessors became known as Hottentot Venuses, Baartman being the most famous Venus Hottentot.
After she was sold in France in the final year of her short life, Baartman was examined by the French anatomist Georges Cuvier, who sought in her body evidence of the missing link between humans and other species. When she died in 1815 at only twenty-six, Cuvier conducted a dissection, focusing on her genitalia, in an effort to prove his theories of racial evolution — he wanted to demonstrate that Baartman, like all black Africans, had more in common with apes than with humans.
In the whole of human history, there have been few misuses of science grimmer than Cuvier’s treatment of Baartman and few more egregious uses of pseudoscientific theories in the name of cultural propaganda entirely divorced from fact — evidence that those animated by what Bertrand Russell called “power-knowledge” as distinguished from “love-knowledge” will use any tool at their disposal to warp reality to their benefit, in this case using science just as religion has been used to justify injustice.
Nearly two centuries later, the great science writer Stephen Jay Gould found himself so appalled by Baartman’s case that it inspired his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man — a haunting inquiry into the misuses of science and the uses of pseudoscience as a tool of oppression, of which our present age of “alternative facts” is an echo. Gould originally intended to title the book Great Is Our Sin, after his hero Charles Darwin’s famous line condemning the false hierarchies upon which slavery was built and insisting instead on the natural biological equality of the races: “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
In the book, Gould goes on to write about the Venus Hottentot case as a gruesome pinnacle of pseudoscience used to advance not the liberation that comes from knowledge but the oppression of institutionalized ignorance:
The human body can be measured in a thousand ways. Any investigator, convinced beforehand of a group’s inferiority, can select a small set of measures to illustrate its greater affinity with apes. (The procedure, of course, would work equally well with white males, though no one ever made the attempt. White people, for example, have thin lips — a property shared with chimpanzees — while most black Africans have thicker, consequently more “human,” lips.)
But the Venus Hottentot case and its cascade of cautionary implications come most blazingly alive not in a science book but in a poem — in the stunning and stirring poem “The Venus Hottentot” by Elizabeth Alexander, only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, originally written in 1990 and later included in her spectacular poetry collection Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990–2010 (public library).
Alexander read the poem and told the story behind it at The Universe in Verse — the part-protest, part-celebration at the intersection of science and poetry, which I co-hosted with the Academy of American Poets and Pioneer Works. Please enjoy:
THE VENUS HOTTENTOT
Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful
blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.
A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary
crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles
of geometry I’d thought
impossible. Few will
ever see what I see
through this microscope.
crowd my notebook pages,
and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers
signify aspects of
will float inside a labeled
pickling jar in the Musée
de l’Homme on a shelf
above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”
Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.
There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.
I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk
dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar-studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.
That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays
at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is Prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.
“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
toward the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.
Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak
English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid broth. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach
is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjur my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts
and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian
archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have not forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up
from this table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.
Find more highlights from The Universe in Verse here — including Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, poet Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and poet Diane Ackerman’s serenade to our search for extraterrestrial life — then revisit Alexander on writing, love and loss, the power of poetry in moments of powerlessness, and how great artists orient themselves to the world.
Published May 17, 2017