Today’s poem is from Lynne Procope.
the poet addresses Saartjie Baartman; the so called Venus Hottentot. (on the release of Erykah Badu’s video, “Window Seat”)
Sarah, I see I never knew your true name. The one
you withheld when nothing else could be, while the
English poor cockneyed their epithets onto the insult
of your Aafrikaner name. They flung their food at you,
bent low to get good looks at all that naked black
girl! Cuvier cut out the most tender pieces of you.
He held them up to the light. Look! How round!
How large the Hottentot! What’s that word mean,
Sarah? Once upon a time, I thought it meant my black
body as nothing but meat for jaws. I covered
every high round part of me, made myself invisible.
I starved. I thought the word meant
white folk see the real you and hate your body. You know
where that took me. You were sent there first. You
know what it takes for us to ever get back home.
Tonight in a dark bar, there’s a black girl on the TV.
(Sarah, I’m glad you were spared the indignity of film,
imagine how it would’ve added those ten pounds to your
wide behind, smudges to your honey colored skin).
On the TV that black girl is in her altogether. Good god!
And here’s a white man, his hand possessive on my ass,
which is where I like it when he holds me. I’m aware
that there’s irony here and— look how far we’ve come.
He is aware he skirts the edges of offending someone
in this room, at all times. His hand stays, heavy as chains,
meant to keep what’s his in her proper place. But I am
so slippery Sarah. No one can make me stay
where I don’t wish to be. We both know it and I am
distracted by the shape of the singer’s bare behind,
widened buttocks. (what a word, buttock; uttered over
your shoulder in a dim lit bar, the way it sounds
like one part animal and one part — animal.)
The woman on the TV strides the Dallas mall. She is
a beast burst out from the cage. I make a wish that you
should see her body, the outsized parts we worship.
We marvel at how she’s grown older, how well she wears
her babies’ fat, how slim her waist at this age and she
doesn’t look like Jackie O at all.
She throws down clothes as if she or you or I forget
that no one makes anything to fit or cover our gorgeous
As if we’d trust the world with our bodies ever again.
She is naked Sarah and I’m wishing I could break
into applause. She’s just done, Sarah, just done
taking back that body when the shot rings out.
Footnote: Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman (1789 – 29 December 1815), the so called Venus Hottentot, was a black woman, originally of the Khoikhoi tribe from the South African peninsula. She was exhibited in 19th century Europe as a “freak-show” attraction. Her supposedly freakish attractions lay in the size of her bottom and the natural distention of her genitalia. Upon her death in 1815 the French scientist, George Cuvier, dissected her body and bottled her brain and genitalia in pickling jars. The French retained her body, in Paris, under the pretext that any return of remains would mandate return of all “artifacts” in French possession. Her remains were housed in the Musée de l’Homme until the French government was pressured into returning her remains to South Africa in 2002.
This poem originally appeared in Storyscape Journal.
Syreeta McFadden teaches, writes and shoots pics, and is a co-curator of Poets In Unexpected Places.