Historical trends have eroded the longstanding traditional valuing of African women; therefore, it is important to detail the African understanding of women. The historical foundations of the mischaracterization of Black peoplehood via the extraction of Black women outside of their cultural context have validated the stereotyped notions of African women. For centuries, African people have been understood from foreign worldviews that lack a culturally appropriate and historically accurate interpretation of African humanity. Cheikh Anta Diop (1955/1974) identified Africa as the cradle of human civilization; ironically, however, African people have been deemed savage and inhumane. These misguided structures of reality do not take into consideration the historical, social, or contemporary experiences of Africans and have led to a devalued understanding of Black peoplehood. Thus, the cultural notions derived from non-African ways of being created and justified the exploitation of African people’s humanity, and in turn, Black womanhood. This section will discuss how racist and sexist connotations of Blackness created the framework for negative stereotypes of Black womanhood. A systematic timeline (from Sara Baartman to Michelle Obama) of the cultural plight of Black women will be detailed to provide an assessment of fetishized notions of Black bodies, the sacrilegious labeling of Black women, and the economic exploitation of Black women’s femininity. This historical overview will detail the foundation of what I term the damnation of Black womanhood.
Womanhood in African Societies
The African worldview is rooted in a philosophy of communalism and interconnectedness (Kambon). This philosophy directly informs the social functions and operations in African societies. Within this worldview system, womanhood symbolizes the beauty, purity, and dignity of African societies. “Consequently, the woman has always had a vital place in the scheme of things within African cosmology” (Sofola 53). High value is placed on women as bearers of future generations and guardians of culture. Motherhood serves as a central function in African societies and is highly esteemed and protected (Oyewumi; Sofola; Sudarkasa). “Mother-right was a prevalent
feature of African societies, and particular women held a variety of privileges based on the fact that they were the keys to inheritance” (Rodney 226). Different levels of respect are afforded to women based on their reproductive status. For young females who have not entered into womanhood, parents take great care to preserve their virginity and family dignity. Those who enter the early stages of womanhood participate in women’s rites-of-passages where they are prepared to take on the indigenous roles of women. During this training, females learn how to care for their bodies, take care of their families, nurture the land, and build skills for securing income. Upon entering into a marriage, a woman is afforded a different level of respect and duty to her family and community. Sudarkasa notes, “among the Yoruba, for example, female members of a lineage refer to their brother’s wives as their own “wives”, a formulation which signals that certain reciprocal responsibilities and behavior are entailed in the relationship of the women to each other” (The ‘Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies 77–78). As wives women exhibit esteem different from that of their husbands and as such hold different roles and responsibilities that vary based on their relationships to each family member. In The ‘Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies
Because marriage is the institution and the idiom through which procreation is legitimated in Africa, it must be entered into by women (as by men) who want to acquire rights over a woman’s childbearing capacity. But even though patterns of deference emphasize subordination of the wife’s role, the decision-making process and the control over resources within the conjugal relationship in many West African societies, including those of the Yoruba, Ibo, Ashanti, and Nupe, indicate parallel and complementary control by husbands and wives. (79)
A vital role of married women was/is reproduction and child-rearing. In the Ifà tradition of the Yoruba of Nigeria, a woman achieved the Ase of Motherhood by entering into a marriage as a virgin, conceiving a child while lying on her back, and giving birth while kneeling (Popoola and Oyesanya). This process was deemed necessary for women to enjoy all the glory of motherhood. Those who achieved this glory and became elders are granted a high level of respect and hold positions of privilege and power in their indigenous communities. Unlike western societies, gender constructs did not influence the social relations of males and females in African societies. Consequently, the social order was/is determined not by gender, as is often assumed, but by the social reality of the community. Sudarkasa contends:
Within their lineages, African women have rights and responsibilities toward their kinsmen and kinswomen that are independent of males. As far as their responsibilities are concerned, female members of the lineage are expected to meet certain obligations in the same way that
males are. For example, women offer material assistance to their sisters and brothers; they also “do their part” (that is, they make the appropriate financial or material outlay) at the time important “rites of passage” such as naming ceremonies, marriages, and funerals. Within patrilineages, women, as father’s sisters, sisters, and daughters, generally do not hold formal leadership positions—although they do take part in most discussions of lineage affairs—and the more advanced in age they are, the more influence they wield. As mothers, sisters, and daughters within the matrilineages, some women hold leadership positions and exercise authority equivalent to that of men. In both patrilineages and matrilineages, interpersonal relations on a daily basis tend to be regulated by seniority as determined by order of birth rather than by gender. Hence, senior sisters outrank junior brothers (The ‘Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies 77).
Despite popular belief that women in African societies exercised limited influence on their families and communities, African women played a key and often complementary role to the men.
In the Yoruba world, particularly in pre-nineteenth century Oyo culture, society was conceived to be inhabited by people in relation to one another. That is, the “physicality” of maleness or femaleness did not have social antecedents and therefore did not constitute social categories. Social hierarchy was determined by social relations. As noted earlier, how persons were situated in relationships shifted depending on those involved and the particular situation. The principle that determined social organization was seniority, which was based on chronological age.
Therefore we find that seniority played a pivotal role in the social order of African societies, and a person’s gender did not inhibit him or her from serving in leadership positions. In fact, in Africa women hold very high positions in both formal and informal governmental structures. Within the structured system of co-rulership (Sofola), women exercised real power “through religion or directly within the politico-constitutional apparatus” (Rodney 226). They are often consulted in matters concerning women, and females of the community and family rally together to address domestic and communal issues. Women have held positions of power such as Chief, Queen-Mother or Queen-Sister, Rain-Queen, leader of army (Warrior-Queen), trader, and market woman. “In fact, in precolonial times, fighting women were part of most African armies, a well-known example being the all-female battalions of Dahomey (ancient Benin, early nineteenth century), who sought to protect their empire against invaders and internal treachery” (Aidoo 41). One of the most observed roles of women in power is the position of Queen-Mother.
Generally this position was filled by a woman from the royal blood-line and held a direct relation to the presiding king. Queen-Mothers held a considerable amount of power on the overall functioning of the kingdom as they expressed a great extent of influence on the king. In The ‘Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies
Women held formal leadership roles in matrilineages and were influential in decision making patrilineages. Their participation in the affairs of their affinal compounds (within which women in patrilineal societies lived most of their adult lives) was channeled through an organizational structure in which the women were most often ranked according to order of marriage into the group. (81)
In the marketplace, women in African societies exhibit primary control over goods and craft production, distribution, and trade. In the economic domain women producers and traders generate an economic base that aids in the maintenance of their communities, and women’s activities are complementary to those of men. According to Sudarkasa:
Among the Ibo, females and males grew different crops; among the Yoruba, the female and male weavers produced different types of cloth on different types of looms. Where both females and males traded, there was usually a sexual bifurcation along commodity lines. Normally too, men predominated in long-distance trade, and women were pre-dominant in local markets. (The ‘Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies 82)
Furthermore, examining the traditional and customary structure of African societies, we find that women are highly valued and hold key roles and responsibilities in their families and communities. As wives, mothers, craftswomen, spiritual advisors, and political figures African women contribute greatly to the overall function and survival of their indigenous societies.
Devaluing African Women Outside of Their Cultural Environment
European encounters with African women have long been documented as a fetishized relationship of dominance. Internally, Europeans introduced and enforced a system of patriarchy that contradicted the indigenous social order and destabilized African communities. This foreign social order contradicts the complimentarian and communal nature of African societies by introducing a system rooted in individualism and male privilege. African women were seen as inferior and no longer permitted to function as leaders or key figures in society. The indigenous responsibilities and privileges previously experienced by African women were replaced under colonialism,
and a foreign standard of womanhood was introduced. The idea of White racial supremacy corroded the minds of Europeans, and they thus rendered Africans as inferior and uncivilized (House Soremekun). This new value system did not parallel the indigenous kinship roles of women and instead placed African women in a lesser position in society. Their responsibilities as caregivers and food producers were no longer measured by the same standard, and they were forced to enter laborious arenas previously occupied by men. “Therefore the deterioration in the status of African women was bound up with the consequent loss of the right to set indigenous standards of what work had merit and what did not” (Rodney 227). This shift undervalued African women as guardians of culture and bearers of future generations in an attempt to de-womanize African women. For years Africans successfully resisted this foreign social order. Council deliberations, negotiations, revolts, and violence were all used to resist European marginalization of African societies. However, Europeans expressed very little or no interest in preserving the culture and humanity of African people and instead opted to exploit and control the goods, resources, and communities.
African women were often taken outside of their kinship networks and removed completely from their normal natural cultural environments (Rodney; Terborg-Penn) The transporting of African women for sale has been recorded as early as the mid-7th century. African women were seen as a valuable labor supply both on the continent and abroad. As such, Europeans developed a demand for African women as commodities and began to forcibly transport African women around the world. While Africans fought to resist this subjugation, the transatlantic slave trade dominated since the 18th century and has had the largest impact in stripping Africa of its most vital resource, the people. In all cases, African women were seen as different from European women and of lesser value. In fact, African women were consider non-women and were looked upon in amazement because their physical bodies were different from those of European women. Europeans concluded that due to the difference in physic, Africans were more animalistic and thus overly sexual, as could be seen with their comparatively large buttocks, genitals, and semi-nudity.
Increasing interest in the African female body led European traders to capture and transport African women into European societies as objects of scientific and public examination. The Khoehhoe/Khoisan women of South Africa drew particular interest due their perceivably large buttocks. These women were used as servants and were seen as exotic and worthy of display. As such, they were treated not as esteemed members of their kinship, but as hyper-sexual beings worthy only of sexual dominance and control. A young Khoisan woman born in the 1970s, Saartje Baartman (a name forced upon her by Dutch colonizers) was groomed since childhood to be the object of European fascination. Her family worked on a farm under Dutch colonial rule, and she later lived and worked in the Cape of South Africa under the same colonial structure. It was during this time of servitude that Sara, for
short, was named the “savage servant” (Crais and Scully 9). Although she experienced the Khoekhoe women’s rites of passage, she like many Khoisan women exercised limited privileges and responsibilities of Khoekhoe culture and was instead subject to Dutch exploitation. The indigenous communities rebelled against this marginalized existence, and their revolts resulted in the Hottentot Rebellion of 1799–1802 (Crais and Scully; Qureshi). As revenge for her family’s rebellion, Sara was sold to a European trader and later forcibly transported to Europe as a sideshow attraction. Saarjte Baartman was then labeled the Hottentot Venus, which symbolized abnormality, freakish sexuality, and inferiority of the African race. She spent five years being sexually abused and showcased in a zoo as an exotic entertainer. “Displayed in England and France in the early nineteenth century as a curiosity, her breast, buttock, and hypertrophied labia aroused considerable interest, prurient and scientific” (Qureshi 233). All the lessons learned of womanhood in South African were forcibly removed from her psyche in an attempt to make her appear more alluring and exotic. She was forced to sing and perform for White audiences and was often used as a sex slave, satisfying the curiosity of White Europeans. Tortured by the sexual inspections of Whites, Sara Baartman often found herself forced to spread her legs, bend over, and have her body caressed by paying patrons who desired to see, touch, and experience this so-called freak of nature (see Figure 1.1
The sexual terrorism by Europeans upon Sara Baartman left her disease stricken and frail. This, however, did not stop her damnation, instead the show went on. This symbolized a depraved neglect for her humanity and the acceptance of her being classified as an animal-like mutant. Baartman died in Paris in December 1815. Upon her death, she was still the object of European fascination. “Georges Cuvier, then Europe’s most revered scientist and the father of comparative anatomy, eagerly dissected her body for his investigations and remade her in a plaster cast as the Hottentot Venus” (Crais and Scully 2). Cuvier was intrigued by Baartman and ripped apart her body piece by piece in the so-called name of science. Her female genital organs were enclosed in a glass and displayed in Europe for over 100 years. Even in her death she represented for Europeans the abnormality of the African race. The encasing of Sara Baartman symbolized the degree of European obsession with dehumanizing African women and in turn African humanity. This grotesque fixation on devaluing African femininity drew an international audience clearly revealing the internalized notion of Black savage inferiority.
Baartman disappeared from history as the identity she had performed on-stage and in Europe’s halls was entombed in science and figured ever more prominently in the Western imagining of women, race, and sexuality: the primitive woman with extraordinarily large buttocks and, so many were told, remarkable sexual organs. A huge illustration of the Hottentot Venus greeted the tens of thousands of visitors
who crowded into the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1889, and her plaster cast was made available to the more than thirty-one million people attending the International Exhibition of 1937, just before the outbreak of the Second World War when ideas about the supposed inferiority of the races nearly destroyed Europe.
(Crais and Scully 2)
The widespread acceptance of Saarjte Baartman as the Hottentot Venus represents for Europeans the inferiority of Africans people (women and men), cultures, and history and validates the inhumane treatment of African women and men. For South Africans, Sara Baartman’s humanity never lessened, and at the end of apartheid in 1994 the South African community
began an international campaign demanding the return of Saarjte Baartman’s remains, with the hope of granting her a proper burial and restoring her humanity (Crais and Scully; Qureshi). Met with contestation, President Nelson Mandela took the political lead on demanding Baartman’s return, which took more than 12 years (Qureshi).
South Africans began demanding the return of Baartman’s remains for proper burial in the place of her birth. The French refused: they claimed her body was theirs. Baartman’s history became the grist of domestic and international politics. Baartman emerged as South Africa’s “mother and her life as the Hottentot Venus a reminder of the injustices black South Africans have endured over the past three and a half centuries.” For the French, retaining the body meant defending the power and enlightenment of French science. But science so clearly tied to race could not win: Sara Baartman was reburied in a state funeral in South Africa on National Women’s Day in August 2002.
(Crais and Scully 3–4)
The treatment of Sara Baartman historically and contemporarily represents the international damnation of Black womanhood. Objectified in life and death, Sara Baartman became the standard by which all African women were/are evaluate...