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Sara Baartman and the “Inclusive Exclusions” of Neoliberalism Author(s): Sheila Lloyd Source: Meridians , Vol.

Sara Baartman and the “Inclusive Exclusions” of Neoliberalism Author(s): Sheila Lloyd Source: Meridians, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2011), pp. 212-237 Published by: Indiana University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/meridians.11.2.212 Accessed: 27-06-2016 10:01 UTC

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Sheila Lloyd

Sara Baartman and the “Inclusive Exclusions” of Neoliberalism


This essay examines three African-American feminist texts—Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Venus Hottentot,” Barbara Chase-Riboud’s Hottentot Venus, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus. In their nuanced critiques of the sovereign power of neoliberalism as both a sociopolitical and a discursive condition, that is, as what Foucault calls a biopolitics, these texts represent a feminist cultural activism that challenges the hegemonic forms of neoliberalism and transnational market relations. Despite their apparent focus on African-American women’s bodies and their exploitation and instrumentalization, what is additionally meaningful in these texts is that the more recent history of globalization to which women are subjected under late capitalism—a history within and on which these texts and their writers work—is shown to be coextensive (although not homologous) with the history of imperialism that made it possible in the first place to mark out a place for a Sara Baartman (the so-called Hottentot Venus) in nascent capitalist relations and forces of production and in the early colonization of southern Africa. In their nonreferential literary representations of twentieth-century neoliberalism, Alexander, Parks, and Chase-Riboud give readers a marginal subject, “Sara Baartman,” who serves not simply as an icon of sexual difference between white and black, as some critics have argued, but as an economic placeholder for these interrelated nineteenth- and twentieth-century economic and social histories.

[Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 2013, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 212–237] © 2013 by Smith College. All rights reserved.


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If everything were transparent, then no ideology would be possible, and no domina- tion either; evidently this is not our case. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (1981)

Not only have transnational feminist theorists and cultural critics evi- denced a keen interest in Sara Baartman, a Khoekhoe woman who in 1810 was transported from the Cape Colony in South Africa and exhibited to the public at Piccadilly Circus in London as the “Hottentot Venus,” but African- American feminist artists and writers (primarily women) have also taken Baartman as their subject. If one wants to understand why some forms of African-American feminist aesthetic practices have explored linguistic and performative aspects of the social relations that theorists and critics have examined in the case of Baartman, then one must be prepared to take on these texts’ function as social texts. Moreover, in doing so, one need be mindful that these texts are constructed in particular contexts and serve, among other things, the tasks of producing and promoting, to use Olakun- le George’s formulation, highly invested versions of history (George 1999, 71). It is my claim that transnational feminist criticism of literature, and of culture in general, might benefit from looking at the versions of history that literary production around Baartman has created, if only because this helps us to understand the role of literature and other art-forms in con- structing visions of collective action, solidarity, and social justice that are so crucial to a transnational feminist imaginary. 1 I read literary texts by Elizabeth Alexander, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Barbara Chase-Riboud comparatively in order to determine what their versions of history and their investments are and why these versions, for important reasons, turn to Baartman’s encounter both with a colonial system that the English began to install in the Cape Colony in 1806—only one year before the abolition of the slave trade and four years before Baartman’s arrival in England—and with that other scene of colonization, the metropole, with which she is so often associated. This other scene engages an earlier manifestation of the globalization of capitalism whereby policies concern- ing the Khoekhoe’s enslavement on the frontier and proletarianization in the towns and industrial labor centers of the Cape Colony, as well as legislation on the integration of “Britain’s newest colony” into the empire, were being drafted and debated (Abrahams 1996, 101). As Zine Magubane explains, the

Sheila Lloyd • Sara Baartman and the “Inclusive Exclusions”


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“old economic order at the Cape [was] based on enslavement, forced captivity, and despotism,” and this was to be replaced, so the English hoped, by a “‘voluntary’ commodification of the self and a ‘willing’ capitulation to the dominant logic of capital” (Magubane 2001, 829). Given this history, one that needs little rehearsing here since it has been explored in some detail by Yvette Abrahams (1996), Sadiah Qureshi (2004), and Mugabane (2001), among others, my investigation runs counter to that of most critics 2 on Sara Baartman, who see her as exemplary of the status of the Hottentot (a derogatory name for the Khoekhoe people), as “the lowest rung on the great chain of being[, as] the central nineteenth-century icon for sexual difference between the European and the Black” (Gilman 1986, 231, quoted in Mugubane 2001, 817), and as “a late-twentieth-century icon for the violence done to women of African descent” (Strother 1999, 37, quoted in Mugabane 2001, 817). Although it would seem that the desire on the part of the African-American women writers I have selected to examine also is to claim Baartman as a iconic figure for the transhistorical, racialized sexual difference of women of African descent, this desire can be historicized, at least in the literary cases that I interpret, as an actual instantiation of a critique of sovereign power. This critique, in Aihwa Ong’s particular explora- tion of this concept, involves “overlapping sovereignties” in that, although “the state retains formal sovereignty, corporations and multilateral agencies frequently exert de facto control over the conditions of living, laboring, and migration of populations” (Ong 2006, 19). In their rather nuanced critiques of sovereign power as both a sociopolitical and a discursive condition, that is, as what Foucault calls a biopolitics, these texts represent a feminist cultural activism that challenges the hegemonic forms of neoliberalism and transna- tional market relations. Thus, despite their apparent focus on black women’s bodies and their exploitation and instrumentalization, what is additionally meaningful in these texts is that the more recent history of globalization to which women are subjected under late capitalism—a history within and on which, I want to suggest, these texts and their writers work—is shown to be coextensive (although not homologous) with the history of imperialism that made it possible, in the first place, to mark out a place for a Sara Baartman in nascent capitalist relations and forces of production and in the early coloniza- tion of southern Africa. Published between 1990 and 2003, the texts I examine serve as narratives that offer up a space for comprehending and grasping in a nonteleological


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fashion the possibilities of contemporary transnational feminism. The years in which these texts saw publication also witnessed neoliberalism becoming more and more entrenched globally as an economic dominant dependent on a reconstitution of state powers. For their part, these newly constituted state powers have consequences for how we examine traditional notions of state sovereignty as linking territories in a naturalized and, despite their competi- tion, seemingly neutral fashion. Like many other state formations, neolib- eral state sovereignty is constructed and shaped by institutions, most of which, such as the International Monetary Fund, are inter- or transnational in scope. Moreover, the sovereign power invested in the state is one that is marked by violence and by threats of violence, as Thomas Hansen and Finn Stepputat have argued (Hansen and Stepputat 2005, 3). In fact, this state of violence, along with the power to determine which lives are disposable, is what ultimately defines sovereignty. Having opened this line of inquiry, we might ask: what does this have to do with African-American feminist transnationalism, both socially and literarily? We could glibly and therefore inadequately reply that it has everything to do with it. But in order to venture a fuller account, we would want to define “neoliberalism,” which David Harvey has explained as:

a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropri- ate to such practices. The state has to guarantee, for example, the quality and integrity of money. It must also set up those military, defence, police, and legal structures and functions required to secure private property rights and to guarantee by force if need be, the proper

functioning of markets. Furthermore, if markets do not exist

they must be created, by state action if necessary. But beyond these tasks the state must not venture. (Harvey 2005, 2)


Later in this essay, I will have occasion to address what is meant by “human well-being” and to question how the “human” is defined under neoliberal- ism, but for now, to add to Harvey’s explanation, I want to refer to Ong’s statements about this theory and place them alongside Harvey’s. As she sees it, “Neoliberalism is merely the most recent development of such techniques

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that govern human life, that is, a governmentality that relies on market knowledge and calculations for a politics of subjection and subject-making that continually places in question the political existence of modern human beings” (Ong 2006, 13). Finally, as Jodi Dean considers it, “neoliberalism is a philosophy viewing market exchange as a guide for all human action. Redefining social and ethical life in accordance with economic criteria and expectations, neoliberalism holds that human freedom is best achieved through the operation of markets. Freedom (rather than justice or equality) is the fundamental political value” (Dean 2009, 51). What I want to emphasize here about this political-economic theory and practice qua ethics is that they have proven in the United States to be devastating to poor and working-class African-American communities, and this has been the case far more for poor African-American women, who have been positioned in the rhetoric as manifestly unsuited for and incapable of assimilation into the market relations fostered by neoliberal- ism. Moreover, in neoliberalism’s rhetoric, particularly against the figure known as the “welfare queen,” these same women are held responsible for an entire community’s perceived failure to integrate itself into late capital- ism’s market ethos. This became apparent in the languages of and policies, from the 1980s on, related to race, gender, and class that justified (and continue to promote) the dismantling and rearrangement of “divisions of labour, social relations, welfare provisions, technological mixes, ways of life and thought, [and] reproductive activities,” which, from Ronald Reagan’s administration to Bill Clinton’s to George W. Bush’s, neoliberal- ism has brought about (Harvey 2005, 3). The fragmentation associated with neoliberalism might be described as a new form of alienation in the sense that what we are examining is akin to but not, I here argue, the same as what Fredric Jameson characterizes as “the nineteenth-century historical situation in which the emergence of the ego or centered subject can be understood,” a situation involving “the dissolution of the older organic or hierarchical social groups, the universal commodification of the labor-power of individuals and their confronta- tions as equivalent units within the framework of the market, the anomie of these new ‘free’ and isolated individual subjects to which the protective development of a monadic armature alone comes as something of a compensation” (Jameson 1981, 153–54). 3 In their nonreferential literary representations of this fragmentation and alienation, Alexander, Parks,


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and Chase-Riboud give us a marginal subject, “Sara Baartman,” who serves not simply as an icon of sexual difference between white and black, but as an economic placeholder for these interrelated nineteenth- and twentieth-century economic and social histories. Alexander’s “The Venus Hottentot” (in Alexander 1990) is a narrative poem that proceeds dialogically (as per the Bakhtinian model of dialogism 4 ) and that can be read for its historically determinant complex, which applies to the other texts under study here, of discourses and philosophical sys- tems—for example, science, colonialism, medicine—all of which are important to transnational feminism’s focus on women’s, particularly postcolonial and poor “first world” women’s, subjection to the dictates of such epistemes as science and medicine. The poem’s two voices are best conceived not as characters or anthropomorphic figures with whom we associate specific acts and attributes, 5 but as subjects with whom we associ- ate particular discourses and places within what Lacan calls the symbolic, the system of signs that constitutes the social order. At issue in the poem is an agon between the subject that the poem would have us associate with Georges Cuvier, the nineteenth-century naturalist and anatomist, and Sara Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus. In Alexander’s poem, Cuvier represents a space of mastery and a concomitant will to knowledge-power, whereas Baartman represents a space reserved for that subject pressed into service to advance the will associated with Cuvier. Writing about these two historical figures, Anne Fausto-Sterling has suggested:

Cuvier most clearly concerned himself with establishing the priority of European nationhood; he wished to control the hidden secrets of Africa

and of woman by exposing them to scientific

delved beneath the surface, bringing the interior to light; he extracted

the hidden genitalia and defined the hidden Hottentot. Lying on his dissection table, the wild Bartman became the tame, the savage civilized. By exposing the clandestine power, the ruler prevailed. (Fausto-Sterling 1995, 42, quoted in Magubane 2001, 819)

Hence he

Notwithstanding the questions of how compelling this argument might be—and it is not without its problems, which include most notably its assumptions concerning Cuvier’s motives—it is consonant with Alexan- der’s poem’s thematic of the historical encounter and psycho-affective exchange between Cuvier and Baartman.

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Although it addresses the colonial dynamic between the two figures, Alexander’s poem says little about this dynamic as a set of actual social relations emerging from imperialism in the nineteenth century. However, rather than representing a silenced and tamed Baartman, Alexander’s

poem endeavors to establish a counter-discourse on the part of a colonized and enslaved Baartman. As in the Hegelian master–slave dialectic, Baartman’s knowledge vies with that associated with nineteenth-century transnational science and medicine. For instance, at one point in the poem, the visual sensorium—constituted by Cuvier’s eye gazing through a microscope—captures “small things in the world” (Alexander 1990, 6)

with “few

slave’s avenging anger, as Frantz Fanon might say, counters this knowl-

edge and is brought forth as a voice from the dead, declaring:

ever see[ing] what I see / through this microscope” (5). The

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. (Alexander 1990, 9–10)

Rising from the dead (and the poem’s use of the subjunctive mood is worth noting), Baartman’s “spirit” leaves in its wake an anatomizing “science,” whose unnatural black heart it displays to a multitude unlike the paradoxi- cally limited audience available to Cuvier, whose plans include taking her “genitalia / [which] will float inside a labeled / pickling jar in the Musée / de l’Homme on a shelf / above Broca’s brain / ‘the Venus Hottentot’” (Alexan- der 1990, 6). Implicit in the poem’s devices of metonymy and inversion is the historical perspective of a colonial subject, a marginal one, pressed to its limit. Instead of her being an atomized subject, what we find in the Baartman of Alexander’s poem is the making of a collective subject constructed via a colonizing process (though this is not to say that Baart- man represents all colonized subjects). The bringing of a new collective subject into being is suggested in several places in the poem where the Khoekhoe colonial subject does not


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do what the colonizer expects of her—which is to commodify the self, as Magubane argues was historically the case. Instead, Baartman is figured not so much as commodity but as consumer. In the poem, as a potential consumer, Baartman avers:

I would return [from England] to my family

a duchess, with watered-silk dresses and money to grow food, rouges and powders in glass pots, silver scissors, a lorgnette, voile and tulle instead of flax cerulean blue instead of indigo. (Alexander 1990, 7)

Shunning the processes and forces of production in which she was formerly embedded and where flax and indigo, according to the poem, are cultivated in an agrarian mode of production, Baartman is captivated by the lure of an imperial process in which goods from abroad, or from the periphery, find their way into the hands of bourgeois imperial subjects in the metropole. Although the poem focuses in this section on the commodified Baartman’s relation to other commodities and objects and thereby represents her as a “thing” among other “things,” we can discern a parallel between this representation of a colonized subject as consumer and the actual, concrete social history of taking raw materials from colonies, finishing them in an imperial center, and returning them to a new consumer market in the colonies—a process that needs to be recognized as importantly part and parcel of the political economy of early nineteenth-century England. 6 I would argue that this set of political-economic relations, although possible to miss when reading the poem, is as central to the poem as is its meditation on the power relations between Baartman as a colonial other or object and Cuvier as an imperial self or subject. At first glance, it would appear that Alexander’s poem, then, would have us believe that the Cuvier–Baartman relationship of self to other is one that has primacy when we attempt to understand these historical figures together and alone. With its concentration on the Cuvier–Baartman dynamic, the poem would seem to suggest that the nineteenth-century capitalist forces of production, in which colonies were both sources of raw materials and markets for goods finished in the metropole, are actually secondary to

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historicizing Baartman’s situation with respect to French scientific inquiry and with respect to the Khoekhoe colonization and immiserization in the British-ruled Cape Colony. As the poem would have it, the signal historical narrative or version of history that it wants to establish is one in which an African-American feminist identification with Baartman is secured by representing her as an ancestral presence. 7 The poem indicates this by imagining a line of descent from Baartman to “imaginary / daughters, in banana skirts / and ostrich-feather fans” (Alexander 1990, 9). With its allusion to Josephine Baker, the poem establishes a filiation between Baartman, as a nineteenth-century racialized and gendered other, and spectacle and Baker, with her twentieth-century performance of race and gender. What the poem ends up doing by juxtaposing these figures is to dehistoricize Baartman, to conflate a Khoekhoe woman in near-captive exile with an African-American woman in voluntary exile, and to claim a kinship relation between Baartman and all black American women. The making of this ancestral presence is perhaps informed by the poem’s insistence that there be a reclaiming of the historical Baartman, a practice of reclamation that was a significant feature of feminist criticism and writing practices in the 1970s and 1980s, the latter of which were the very years of the poem’s composition. 8 The identification that Alexander’s poem solicits is one that runs counter to an identification informed by the idea of solidarity (not filiation) across national, racial, ethnic, class, and sexual lines at the same time as this identification acknowledges and negotiates these differences, an idea that is an important feature of transnational, anticapitalist scholarship, aesthetic production, and activism. Yet despite all that I have said about its limitations, there is something important in Alexander’s poem for transnational feminist criticism and activism. The most crucial is her re-imagining the potential agency of African-American women as transnational subjects during the early days of the institutionalization of neoliberalism in the 1980s and 1990s. If the reclamation project informing Alexander’s text is taken as a feminist practice, then that feminism is not so much about Baartman as an ances- tral presence than it is about representing her as a figure that discursively opens up a space granting us access to a usable past. Her positioning as commodity and as consumer discloses a hidden transcript, to use James C. Scott’s term, of resistance to a reduction of African-American women’s lives to market relations (Scott 1992). Alexander’s Baartman shows the


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compatibility between black life as commodity under nineteenth-century capitalist imperialism and black life under twentieth-century neoliberal- ism as subjects engaged in market relations via consumerism. We might ask: how can these two positions even be thought of together? What we have witnessed in the intervening years from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century is not so much a passage from commodity to consumer, but the reconciliation of the earlier notion of the “speaking commodity” 9 as an object-identity held by others with a more recent notion of black, female life’s refusal (for neoliberals, their constitutive failure) to accept social life in terms of competition within markets as the summum bonum. Alexander’s text deploys an alterist discourse and gives its readers cause to think about imperialism and neoliberalism; Barbara Chase-Riboud’s historical novel Hottentot Venus (2003) constructs its fictionalized Saartjie or Sara Baartman via a triple discursive articulation. The text carves out a space for her as a legally consenting subject; a class position for her as a Khoekhoe woman brought within the realm of an imperialist capitalism and finding reason to note the similarities of the positioning of industrial metropolitan workers in England and colonized labor in the Cape Colony; and a place for her as a colonized native or subaltern, who belongs among the dispossessed, but who has the additional position of being a gendered, colonized subject. Before getting into a discussion of these positions, I would like to consider for a moment the novel’s use of history. Harry Shaw has usefully described and analyzed three main ways in which history has been employed in the genre of historical fiction. He enumerates and accounts for them as follows:

First, history has provided an ideological screen onto which the preoccupation of the present can be projected for clarification and

solution, or for disguised expression. I refer to this use as “history as

pastoral.” Second, history

that vivifies a fictional story. Such dramatic energy can produce effects that are melodramatic and insubstantial, but it can also produce

catharsis. Finally, and obviously, history has acted as the subject of

historical novels, in a variety of ways. These different uses of history often coexist in a given novel. But the sense we make of a historical novel, or any character or scene within it, depends upon our conception

of its

has acted as a source of dramatic energy

Though all of these uses of history may coexist in a

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work, they are likely at any given moment to fall into a hierarchy in which one of them predominates, and adequate interpretation depends upon recognizing this hierarchy. (Shaw 1983, 52)

It is my sense that Hottentot Venus works with the first and last of these methods, and it does this in such a way that the first serves as the “histori- cal ‘dominant’” of the work, to use the term that Shaw borrows from Russian formalism (54). Although obviously taking history as its subject matter, the novel would have its readers concentrate their efforts on comprehending what perspective on history is most fitting when telling the story of Sara Baartman. The text gives us multiple vantage points, discourses, statements, decisions, and propositions that constitute its narrative apparatus. To use Foucault’s concept, the “dominant strategic function” of this narrative apparatus is to display the heterogeneity needed to account historically for Baartman and to assimilate that which, because of what has been done to construct her historically and socially, cannot be assimilated with ease (Foucault 1980, 195). Dedicated as it is to Nelson Mandela, Chase-Riboud’s novel is more obviously a transnational document than is Alexander’s poem. The novel’s transnationalism is evident not only in the dedication, but in its epilogue set in Cape Town, South Africa in 2002, the year that Baartman’s remains were repatriated from France to South Africa for interment there, 10 and also in its author’s acknowledgments, which end with the words: “Forgive the African debt, forgive the African debt, forgive the African debt” (Chase-Riboud 2003, 320). The social movement to relieve or forgive debt for highly indebted poor countries began in the 1980s with pressure coming from international nongovernmental organizations such as the Jubilee 2000 movement (Jubilee Debt Campaign 2000). In Chase-Riboud’s dedication and acknowledgments, we find a view of history in which the past is used to reflect on the present. More particularly, the author takes key moments in Baartman’s life and career and links them imaginatively with actual historical figures and events to indicate how they feature in our present. For example, in the instance of her infamous trial, Baartman’s “managers” were brought before the court to account for their indecent display of her while the case’s judges attempted to ascertain whether she “was being kept as a slave” (Abrahams 1996, 89). Hottentot Venus makes of this trial an occasion to introduce the Jamaican radical Robert Wedderburn, who says of himself:


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I was a theologian, the son of an aristocratic Scottish planter and a slave woman. I had dedicated my life to the radical cause of abolition and had founded the African Association, which was famous for defending the rights of slaves and freeing and repatriating as many as it could. The association fought and campaigned against racism in England and the

horrors of slavery in the West

Unitarian preacher who believed there should be an affinity between black West Indians and the British working class, between London’s artisan class and the ultraradical party. (Chase-Riboud 2003, 112–13)

I was a licensed, self-taught

An early internationalist, Wedderburn is the subject of a chapter in Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s highly influential study The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Less well known than Sara Baartman, Wedderburn has been described by Linebaugh and Rediker as “a strategically central actor in the formation and dissemination of revolutionary traditions [and as] an intellec- tual organic to the Atlantic proletariat” (Linebaugh and Rediker 2000, 289). His insertion into Chase-Riboud’s text as one of the primary abolitionist figures coming to aid Baartman shows the early transnational (in this case, Atlantic) politics of resistance to capitalist expropriation and exploitation, which, for Wedderburn, applied equally to the cotton fields as to the cotton factories. Working with his autobiography The Horrors of Slavery (1824) and with some of his other writings, Chase-Riboud paraphrases Wedderburn and has him say to the fictional Baartman, “The English working class, the Scottish peasantry, the black Haitian, the African slave, the Irish bond servant, the American Indian are all one and the same” (Chase-Riboud 2003, 135). Wedderburn promotes solidarity-in-difference, and his vision of it depends on both a popular and a revolutionary theory of historical change and consciousness. This, then, appears to be the historical dominant into which the text attempts to insert the fictional Baartman. Assuming that she must be a slave, because otherwise there would be no question that she would be capable of consenting to her display, the Wedder- burn of the text is surprised to meet Baartman’s resistance to his efforts to free her from a supposed “involuntary servitude” (Chase-Riboud 2003, 121). Despite his desire to be instrumental in her liberation and to make cause with the Khoekhoe woman, Wedderburn and the African Association are eventually thwarted by evidence that she has freely entered into a contract

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with her keepers. 11 According to the fictionalized Baartman, Wedderburn sees in her “a means to [his] goal of revolution, and rebellion, against the English” (Chase-Riboud 2003, 134). It is only years later, after her keepers have abandoned her and sold her to a French animal-keeper, that Baartman attempts (and unsuccessfully at that) to contact Wedderburn in order to secure her liberty. If I have spent so much time on the fictionalized Baart- man–Wedderburn relationship—which, as the novel presents it, is a compli- cated affair—I have done so to emphasize the text’s view of the past, which as represented in the person of Wedderburn includes both a radical trans- Atlantic proletarian and an African diasporic history of resistance. However, the chapters of the text given over to Wedderburn are not the only place where Baartman encounters figures of resistance. Concentrating equally on the Cape Colony, England, and France, Hottentot Venus depicts Baartman as a near-picaresque character traveling through these particular spaces of uneven development. Among the places of interest to me, as I read the text’s representation of the past, are her travels in the Midlands, where Chase-Riboud has Baartman witness what E. P. Thompson calls “the making of the English working class,” a collec- tive class subject that practices radical dissent, popular direct action, and other acts deemed illegal by the state (Thompson 1966). Of this, the text states, “All over the Midlands, we encountered riots, strikes and lockouts because of the Luddites and the trade unions, who were trying to organize the guilds and mill workers. More than once, we [Baartman and the company with whom she travels] were barred from a town because of police curfews, or an ordinance against any assembly of more than three people” (Chase-Riboud 2003, 170). At another point in the text, we learn that Baartman’s traveling troupe


appeared in the large cities of Northampton, Nottingham, Wakefield

and Leeds


were named the Luddites. Like the Khoekhoe, once they rose they were

quickly put down by the police and constables hired by the factory Workers convicted of machine breaking were sentenced to death under the [1812] Frame Breaking act of Parliament. After one attack in Yorkshire which left a mill owner dead, over one hundred workers were rounded up, seventeen of whom were hanged. (186)

The workers, the herders, the shepherds and peas-

rebelled against their rich landlords and owners, for which they

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The making of this collective subject says much about how capitalism held sway over the Cape Colony as well as over those working-class subjects in the metropole, the other scene of colonialism. The text’s terms are such that, despite the incursion of capitalism, it would remind readers not to forget that in England, as in the Cape Colony, an insurgent working class

developed forms of resistance to its exploitation. This is far more well- known in the case of the Luddites, about whom the novel states, “The

revolts lasted two more

might stage what Alice [the fictional Baartman’s English working-class servant] called a revolution. But eventually most of them were caught and the last of their heroes, James Towle, executed” (Chase-Riboud 2003, 187). With this detail, one that conforms with Thompson’s historical account (Thompson 1966, 573–74), although the fictionalized Baartman’s own death came one year before the historical Towle’s actual death, Chase- Riboud’s text would have us remember that state sovereignty is secured by means of violence, whether legal or extralegal. Moreover, such sovereign power can be read along the lines of distinction that Giorgio Agamben—in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life—draws between the “People” and “people,” about which he states at some length:

For a while, we believed the Luddites

Every interpretation of the political meaning of the term “people” must begin with the singular fact that in modern European languages,


excluded. One term thus names both the constitutive political subject and the class that is, de facto, if not de jure, excluded from poli- It is as if what we call “people” were in reality not a unitary subject but a dialectical oscillation between two opposite poles: on the one hand, the set of the People as a whole political body, and on the other, the subset of the people as a fragmentary multiplicity of needy and excluded bodies; or again, on the one hand, an inclusion that claims to be total, and on the other, an exclusion that is clearly hope-

less; at one extreme, the total state of integrated and sovereign citizens,

and at the other, the preserve

the defeated. (Agamben 1988, 176–77)

always indicates the poor, the disinherited, and the

of the wretched, the oppressed, and

This distinction between “people” as bare life and “People” as sovereign power that Ong likewise describes as an inclusion of “People” as political body separated from “people” as excluded body, is one that Chase-Riboud

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pursues in her representation of Sara Baartman and in her identification of Khoekhoe exploitation as having an equivalent in, but as being not quite the same as, the exploitation of the English working class. Parsing the difference between bare life and sovereign power, Agamben tells us, in a manner that echoes the sentiment of Hottentot Venus, that “the species and the individual as a simple living body become what is at stake in a society’s political strategies” (Agamben 1988, 3). Although Agamben does not gender this “simple living body,” we can extend his argument and examine how Chase-Riboud allows her readers to understand Baartman as an anterior figuration of what Gayatri Spivak calls “the patriarchally defined subaltern woman” (Spivak 1999, 68). This gen- dered subaltern reveals how “humanist practices [have tended to] legitimize bourgeois and patriarchal interests” (Bose 1997). Included among the humanist practices explored in the text are those having to do with elaborat- ing a position for that subject, a subject position that goes by the name of individualism—including an individualism in its feminist guise. One of the proper names of individualism would be the “self.” Marked out in Hottentot Venus is the impossibility for a subaltern woman, within the prisms of imperialism and patriarchy, to achieve such a subject position, largely because within “patriarchal subject-formation” and within “imperialist object-constitution, it is the place of the free will or agency of the sexed subject as female that is successfully effaced” (Spivak 1999, 235). Bare life, as a “simple living body,” in our time is the body on which neoliberalism, as a set of political and economic strategies, does its work. Under neoliberalism, there is a “commodification of everything” in prin- ciple, and according to this principle, a price can be placed on “processes, things, and social relations,” which in turn can be traded and subjected to legal contract (Harvey 2005, 165). Here is where Suzan-Lori Parks’s contro- versial play Venus can be brought in, for it shows a total commodification of the self, which is not the same as self-commodification, and the social relations in which that self functions and is located. In some of the critical literature, Parks is decried for having exploited Baartman and for having represented her as complicit in her own undoing. 12 My view, however, is that if Parks’s Baartman is represented in such a manner, then one of the effects of this representation is to compel viewers to consider whether binaristic, particularly alterist, paradigms concerning relations between ruler and ruled need reconsidering—a point to which I will return.


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At once the feature of a “freak show,” of a “girlie show,” and of scientific inquiry—all forms of commodification of bare life—the play’s Baartman assumes three guises in the dramatis personae: “Miss Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. The Girl, and later The Venus Hottentot” (Parks 1997/2000). These names suggest that the construction of this character is not as “person,” but as a set of discourses and subject positions. When in the Cape Colony, she is referred to as Saartjie, “Little Sarah,” and she is represented in the play’s directions initially as “The Girl,” the servant-girl, until her unveiling in London as “The Venus.” A careful reader of the script will notice that nowhere in the play does a “Miss Saartjie Baartman” actually appear. What does appear in the play is a set of figures cast in languages that situate her only as personae. Self-conscious in its mode of organization, the play “begins” and “ends” with an announcement of “The Venus Hottentot’s” death and the cancellation of her show; bracketed between these are scenes thirty-one to one, appearing in that order as a countdown with the end at the beginning. In scene thirty-one, she is a servant girl who is convinced to go to England to make “a mint”; in later scenes, she is presented as a performer who is encouraged by “The Mother-Showman” to “pull out all thuh stops” (Parks 1997/2000, 17, 34). It is obvious when looking at the structure of the play with its figuration of its characters as multiple subjects (for example, “The Mans Brother, later The Mother-Showman, later The Grade-School Chum”) that the play is posing questions concerning performance, theatri- cality, publicity, obscurity, representation, and the relationship that each of these has to power. It does this with anachronistic details (for example, The Girl arrives in England on a jet airplane in 1810) and with heteroglossic and polyphonic language, which calls attention to itself as language. Although we rarely stop to reflect that we read and hear and speak language by means of physical organs—the eye, the ear, the vocal apparatus, and the brain—the performance of language by actors in a play such as Parks’s should heighten our awareness that language and thought are embodied. Lacking the “realism” of Alexander’s and Chase-Riboud’s texts, Parks’s text only edges close to realism in its “footnotes,” which appear in the “body” of the script and which consist of “historical extracts” taken from newspaper advertise- ments and scientific, literary, theatrical, and legal statements about Baart- man. Far from faulting Parks for the tenor of the roles she assigns to Baartman, we should recognize in them her critique of representation, particularly the representation of a “black” and “female” body. Three bodies

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are at work in Parks’s play—the body of the text; the body of the actor playing the three roles constituting Baartman; and the prosthetic body, the padded posterior that the actor wears that calls attention to the idea that after flesh, after physicality, is body, the social subject. I have called Chase-Riboud’s Baartman an anterior figuration of the subaltern woman, and I want to suggest that Parks’s Baartman formally and conceptually comes to us from a posterior position as a subject-in- language. We only recognize her as such after the names and the dis- courses describing her are conventionalized to us through the play’s repetitive play of language. Yet I want to make clear that the play’s formal features are not my only interests. The theatricality of the 1810 court case, in which Baartman was asked to declare whether she freely consented to her exhibition and thus was not being enslaved by and acting under the will of another person, that Parks displays in her play is important to consider, but setting that aside, I want to spend time examining, in terms of intimacy and affect, the play’s theme of how one as either a “free laborer” or an enslaved laborer is to survive “both socially and affec- tively”—that is, how one is to survive as a human being (Harvey 2005, 170). Surviving socially and affectively is crucially related to “conviviality,” a concept that is useful for moving beyond the alterist version of history that so many familiar with the historical Baartman want to tell. Informing my understanding of Parks’s play is Achille Mbembe’s account of the workings of conviviality in the postcolony, and considering, as he does, the etymol- ogy of the word, Mbembe has explained the “logic of ‘conviviality,’ [as] the dynamics of domesticity and familiarity, inscribing the dominant and the dominated within the same episteme” (Mbembe 2001, 110). What is particu- larly striking to me about Mbembe’s concept is that it facilitates an understanding of the particular dynamics between the play’s “Miss Saartjie Baartman, a.k.a. The Girl, and later The Venus Hottentot” and “The Man, later The Baron Docteur” (a figure representing Alexander Dunlop and Hendriks Cesar, the historical Baartman’s initial keepers, and Georges Cuvier). In The Venus’s relationship to the composite figure Dunlop-Cesar-Cuvier is her movement from servant to the former two to a lover-scientific object to the latter, a movement that might strike us as odd initially, but that becomes clearer when seen through the prism of Mbem- be’s concept. In his elaboration of “conviviality” in the context of postcolo- niality, he advances the idea that:


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Precisely because the postcolonial mode of domination is a regime that involves not just control but conviviality, even connivance—as shown by the constant compromises, the small tokens of fealty, the inherent cautiousness—the analyst must watch for the myriad ways ordinary people guide, deceive, and toy with power instead of confronting it At any given moment in the postcolonial historical trajectory, the authoritarian mode can no longer be interpreted strictly in terms of

surveillance, or the politics of coercion. The practices of ordinary citizens cannot always be read in terms of “opposition to the state,” “deconstruct- ing power,” and “disengagement.” In the postcolony, an intimate tyranny

links the rulers with the

(Mbembe 2001, 128)

Seeing The Venus (no longer known as The Girl) as The Baron Docteur’s lover involves seeing the character’s structural relationship to her lover, not her identification (which is an act and not a structure) with/for him. Mbembe allows us to discern a structure not of which she is unwitting, but by means of which, in the play’s terms, she complies with him or “embrac- es” and “enfolds” him. This taking of the dominant within the episteme of the dominated—learning and considering the systems of rules informing conceptual and actual possibilities not necessarily so as to reproduce them—is what “conviviality” means socially in Parks’s play. If one is to survive socially under neoliberalism, one needs not dignity alone—because neoliberalism’s ideology of competitive individualism and personal responsibility will see to the cultivation of an overweening sense of self—but support, as Harvey suggests (Harvey 2005, 170). The dismantling of social provisions and relationships that would prevent people from giving way is what we find in Venus. Wanting to make a mint and being passed along from “boss” to “boss,” thereby making her a laborer with a precarious economic position despite her desire to move ahead, The Venus finds herself without alternative social and economic supports. She has her lover, yes, but she remains unsatisfied. Among the few words that she utters in the scenes set in the bedroom that she shares with The Baron Docteur is the repeated question: “Do you love me?” or simply, “Love me?” With this question qua demand, The Venus finds her proof of love in the gifts of chocolates that her lover provides to her. However, sated neither by the chocolates, a substitute, nor by her lover, the seeming object of her need, The Venus languishes, telling the audience in

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one of the play’s later/earlier scenes, “Love helps in times of hardship” (Parks 2000, 155). This statement suggests her awareness that, despite what has been given to her, she still lacks that something that would help her to survive her own hardship. My initial interpretation of The Venus’s questions was that she suffers from what could be called affective lack. Yet when thought of in terms of neoliberalism, Parks’s text directs our attention not only to what is missing, but to what is actually taking place on the stage—the estrange- ment of the self in a “world of flexible labor markets and short-term contracts, chronic job insecurities, lost social protections, and often debilitating labour” (Harvey 2005, 170). In spite of its reminders to its audience that the events on the stage take place in the early 1800s, Venus’s anachronisms, its flights toward the future, bridge the divide between and the breaks separating nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The uniting of periods does not efface historical difference, but it does tell us something about the coexistence of temporalities. Moreover, it makes of “history” an open signifier in that it is not only “what happened” that matters, but also the “why” of past events and our accountability for them that matter, the text seems to suggest. One of the flights that the play takes us on entails a history and economy of affect. Indicating to us that Baartman is an effect or a trace of history and language, as indeed are any of us, Parks’s play stages an absent presence— the dead reanimated. This reanimation is something on the order of a “return of the repressed,” and what has been returned to us is not a resistant gendered subaltern, as in Chase-Riboud’s novel, but a figure that speaks the last lines: “Kiss me Kiss me Kiss me Kiss” (Parks 2000, 162). The fading away of the reanimated dead does not stop the circulation of Baartman’s story. In fact, The Venus’s call for a kiss shows, even insists upon, a desire to establish contact, to make material that which would otherwise be imperceptible, and the call ends with an echo of a “me” with the fourth repetition of “Kiss,” a first-person that is withheld, a subject that is not broken off necessarily, but that is still with us as the play comes to its formal conclusion. This circulation of the affect “love” shapes an economy in which there is no second person (the implied “you”) without the first (“me”). If The Baron Docteur—who, in his prevarication with her, is concerned with making a name for himself upon her dead body, literally— appears throughout the second half of the play as the object loving The


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Venus, as the one who having received her love returns it, then the play at the end evacuates the specificity of the “you,” dislodging him from his historical and grammatical positions and placing us in the circuitry that the play establishes between the two characters. Given this rerouting, what then are the conditions hindering “Miss Saartjie Baartman’s” affective survival? Two things immediately come forth as candidates. Obviously, there is the question of asymmetrical power relations concerning gender, race, ethnicity, and class; there is also a sense that she has been made into an object to satisfy the ends of a competitive subject epistemically, politically, economically, and socially. In the case of the former, we have found a counter-response to the tendency to “flatten” these relations in Mbembe’s concept of “conviviality,” and in the latter, we have transnational feminism’s wary regard of the idea that one person’s “ends,” their (political, economic, and so on) security, must be sought in another’s insecurity. This notion of survival and security returns me finally to what conjoins the three texts that I have examined. One thing we find without much difficulty when taking these texts together is that the aims of transnational feminist activism include seeking justice for women by cross-culturally undertaking social-justice work, a project in which I would include the realm of the aesthetic. This justice work might best be conceived as involving “ethical geographies” that are themselves informed by “a transnational sense of moral responsibility” for the excluded (Ong 2006, 21). In some versions of transnational feminism, especially those having to do with diasporic and borderland configurations, the relations of dominance that make for

exclusion organize feminist scholars’, activists’, and artists’ understandings of what we could call, to borrow from and to modify Arjun Appadurai’s terms, feminist “bioscapes” and “ethnoscapes” (Appadurai 1996) of women

that “highlight

population flows and communities of imagination that cut across [static and] conventional political and social boundaries” (Ong 1999, 10–11). This tension between flow and stasis can be seen to function in the exemplary case of Sara Baartman, insofar as she is represented in these African-American feminist writers’ texts, despite their seeming concern with the local, as an ineluctably transnational figure who urges us to historicize and interpret her as such. These texts also provide a critique of power that is concerned above all with a biopolitics that concentrates its attention on that body of power

the tensions between irregular and fluid shapes of

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from which bare life is excluded. As I read them, the implications of these texts for an African-American feminist transnationalism that wants both to analyze and to engage the axiomatics of our time, most notably those of neoliberalism, can be sought in Agamben’s concept of the “homo sacer,” or sacred man, who represents a type of “inclusive exclusion.” It is this “inclusive exclusion” that sovereign power uses to constitute itself (for example, it excludes whole groups of individuals from “political commu- nity,” while including others), even as these excluded groups “remain internal and crucial to the construction of [late capitalist] society and economy” (Hansen and Stepputat 2005, 17). 13 The internality of the excluded, as a social as well as rhetorical catachresis, becomes a site for the immanent critique of the inclusive exclusion of the historical Baartman under imperial capitalism and of African-American women under neolib- eralism. Analyzing the similar structural negativity, in the critical as well as social senses of the term, of these subjects calls for a method that, if the African-American transnational feminist critic is wise enough to deploy it, reveals the contradictions of these social and economic orthodoxies in order to use these sightings of contradiction as possibilities for emancipa- tion. If we find anything in these literary depictions of Baartman that is worth our sustained attention, when it comes to the relations between the aesthetic and the political, it is their shared notion that nothing is trans- parent, that there is domination—a domination, however, that has not been without aesthetic or social counter.


1. Chandra Mohanty’s account and analysis of transnational feminism have been especially useful to the ways in which I frame African-American transnational feminism; it is notable for its antiracism, and as Mohanty states, it is “an- chored in decolonization and committed to an anticapitalist critique” (Mohanty 2003, 3). Similarly, Laura Briggs, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way indicate that transnationalism as a category of analysis: “belongs to genealo- gies of anti-imperial and decolonizing thought, ranging from anticolonial Marxism to subaltern studies to Third World feminism and feminisms of color. Transnationalism has been a diverse, contested, cross-disciplinary intellectual movement that in some of its manifestations has been bound together by a particular insight: in place of a long and deeply embedded modernist tradition of taking the nation as the framework within which one can study things (literatures, histories, and so forth), the nation itself has to


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be a question—not untrue and therefore trivial, but an ideology that changes over time, and whose precise elaboration at any point has profound effects on wars, economies, cultures, the movements of people, and relations of domination” (Briggs, McCormick, and Way 2008, 628).

2. This work seeks to extend some of the theorization on Sara Baartman by African-American feminists such as Collins 1990; hooks 1992; O’Grady 1992/1994; Hammonds 1997; Sharpley-Whiting 1999; Hobson 2005; and Sharpe 2010. My contribution to this body of literature is to bring forth the theoretical implications, for black feminist transnationalism, of a strategic formation of texts in which Baartman is featured as a proper name.

3. My aim in quoting Jameson is to make apparent the construction of an ideal citizen-subject for a given economic order. However, one would need to question Jameson’s universalizing and his ignoring such matters as the concurrent consolidation of enslaved and colonized subjects alongside the “free” subjects of nineteenth-century capitalism. For a similar critique of Jameson’s suppression of multiplicity and difference, see Ahmad 1992.

4. Dialogism is in essence antagonistic; for instance, within a shared code, classes struggle against and oppose each other. An example of this would be the uses of the concept or code of “liberty” by the conservative eighteenth-century politician Edmund Burke and by the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine.

5. See Fredric Jameson’s distinction between characters and subjects (Jameson


6. In the English imperial model, mercantilist and manufacturing interests worked along with those of the landed elite to transform plantation labor relations such that colonies, particularly those formerly dependent on the slave trade, became sites not only for the production of raw goods, but also had the potential to become new markets for British manufacturers. Abolishing the slave trade and slavery was seen as a way to create these new markets. See Bunn 1980. For more on this in the latter part of the eighteenth century, see Magubane 2001, 828–29. Interestingly, Olaudah Equiano’s humanitarian, antislavery text of 1788 calls for a similar opening of markets in Africa, an act that in one fell swoop both would resolve the “poor black problem” in England by means of transporting them to Africa to become consumers and carriers of civilization to indigenous Africans and would work toward getting rid of the market in slaves (Equiano 1788/1995, 193–96).

7. Sadiah Qureshi notes a similar claim to kinship in the African-American artist Lyle Ashton Harris’s discussion of his photograph, Venus Hottentot 2000. About his collaboration with the African-American artist Renée Cox, he states, “This reclaiming of the image of the Hottentot Venus is a way of exploring my own psychic identification with the image at the level of spectacle. I am playing with what it means to be an African diasporic artist producing and selling work in a culture that is by and large narcissistically mired in the debasement and objectification of blackness. And yet, I see my work less as a didactic

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critique and more as an interrogation of the ambivalence around the body” (Harris 1996, 150; quoted in Qureshi 2004, 249–50). Responding to this statement, Qureshi pointedly adds, “The emphasis upon identifying with Baartman as an ancestral self and her treatment as representative of the negativity of modern depictions of black sexuality is typical of her modern politicization” (250).

8. I would suggest that poetically Alexander attempts to do for Baartman what the novelist Alice Walker did in the 1970s for the then relatively obscure novelist of the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston, whom she claimed as a literary foremother. See Walker 1975/1983.

9. See Moten 2003 for a complication, through an analysis of Frederick Doug- lass’s Aunt Hester, of Marx’s ventriloquization of the commodity as it speaks about its value.

10. Warner 2008 provides a transnationalist reading of the repatriation and interment of Baartman’s remains.

11. For more on the trial and on the question of whether Baartman consented to her public exhibition, see Abrahams 1996 and Sharpe 2010.

12. The most notable criticisms along these lines are Fusco 1995; Young 1997; and Garrett 2002.

13. The notion of “inclusive exclusivity” to which Hansen and Stepputat refer and that I conjoin with Agamben’s concept of “bare life” allows for a complicated analysis of marginalized lives. It answers, in part, Ong’s objection to what she sees as Agamben’s “universal division of humanity into those with rights and those without” (Ong 2006, 23).

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Briggs, Laura, Gladys McCormick, and J. T. Way. 2008. “Transnationalism: A Category of Analysis.” American Quarterly 60, no. 3: 625–48. http://muse.jhu.edu/ journals/aq/summary/v060/60.3.briggs.html (accessed December 8, 2012). Bunn, James H. 1980. “The Aesthetics of British Mercantilism.” New Literary History 11, no. 2: 303–21. Chase-Riboud, Barbara. 2003. Hottentot Venus. New York: Anchor Books. Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman. Dean, Jodi. 2009. Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Equiano, Olaudah. 1788/1995. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself, edited by Robert J. Allison. Boston and New York: Bedford/ St. Martin’s. Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 1995. “Gender, Race, and Nation: The Comparative Anatomy of ‘Hottentot’ Women in Europe, 1815–1817.” In Deviant Bodies: Critical Perspectives on Difference in Science and Popular Culture, edited by Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977, edited by Colin Gordon, translated by Colin Gordon et al. New York:

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Making Post-Slavery Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. 1999. Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Shaw, Harry E. 1983. Forms of Historical Fiction: Sir Walter Scott and His Successors. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1999. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Strother, Z. S. 1999. “Display of the Body Hottentot.” In Africans on Stage: Studies in Ethnological Show Business, edited by Berth Lindfors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Thompson, E. P. 1966. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage.


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