Tuesday, September 12, 2017

On Yvette Abrahams' "Images of Sara Bartman"

While analyzing the various way Sara Bartman's introduction into British society had been tied in to bolster or accredit various classist, sexist, and racist ideas in the 1700-1800s, one of the sections of Abrahams article focuses on the introduction of the "sexualized savage" to popular culture in 17th century Britain. With Sara Bartman serving as a primary example of this concept, Abraham goes on to explain how this image impacted the perceptions of black women effectively dehumanizing them in a separate dichotomy from "civilized" white women, and effectively the rest of the white race.

This dichotomy of savage vs. civilized is presented at the onset with pamphlets, posters, and other sold prints with a frequent depiction of a scandalously near nude Khoikhoi woman: Sara Bartman. Abrahams points out how she is deliberately portrayed with little clothing and choice displays of her ankles and nipples (Abrahams 227) in order to boldly underline Bartman's perceived freakish, savage - in British cultural norms - and bestial sexuality. This sexual objectification, Abrahams adds, became inseparable from Bartman (Abrahams 226) and would soon branch out to make it acceptable to associate hypersexuality as the core of both black women and men.

What I took from Abraham's analysis of the sexualization of both black men and women is in effect the results of these perceptions. In literally and figuratively stripping Sara Bartman of any shred of respect - a decent dress to cover her comfortably, for instance - she isn't allowed to be recognized as a human being. While this may inspire white horror and sentimentality - the general we-must-save-and-civilize-the-savages attitude - it also, to me, does not allow British voyeurs to even recognize Bartman as a person to be empathized with. This dichotomy between "bestial and savage" blacks vs. "civilized" whites is more ironly reinforced by disallowing even any small human similarities to be visible between Bartman and her daily audiences. Instead, the focus on the extreme differences between white and black women - one hypersexual and one asexual - only serves to further other the black race as a whole.

Alienating portrayals of African Americans and other ethnicities are common today, serving at times as subtle but firm dichotomies between "them" and the rest of the western whites. While blacks are still hypersexualized in the present day, there have been attempts to bring forward the history of this sexualization, and serious discussions regarding the challenges black people have to deal with. In an NPR interview with professors Mireille Miller-Young and Herbert Samuels with Farai Chideya, the three discuss the sexual stereotypes other Americans have of African Americans and the impact they have on devaluing black sex workers, especially women, and their labor, despite being more sexualized or primarily objectified than white sex workers.

Altogether considering the long history of sexual objectification and dehumanization of black women and men, it'd be a thought-provoking topic to discuss the present day forms of objectification of black people - especially women - and the challenges it gives to pursuing work, school, or social interaction with others.

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