Saartjie Baartman's story has become central to black feminist theory and politics, serving as the primary analytic vehicle for explaining the violence that the dominant visual field inflicts on black female bodies. The re-telling of Baartman's story has also provided black feminists with tools for grappling with racialized pornography, which is thought to re-enact Baartman's violent exhibition by rendering black women objects for white male spectators' consumption. This article argues that the constant invocation of Baartman's story has allowed an anti-pornography formation to flourish within black feminism, masked as racial progressivism. Ultimately, this strain of anti-pornography politics has promoted a black feminist sexual conservatism which systematically ignores questions of black women's pleasure, sexual agency, and desires, and has generated a normative - rather than analytical - engagement with racialized-sexualized imagery. In place of normative readings of racialized pornography, this paper offers a new reading practice - racial iconography - which examines the ways that pornography mobilizes race in particular social moments, under particular technological conditions, to produce a historically contingent set of racialized meanings, pleasures, and profits.
Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, has emerged as one of the most significant figures in contemporary black feminist thought. The recent explosion of interest in Baartman can be traced, at least in part, to Sander Gilman's seminal article "Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature." Gilman documents the nineteenth-century European fascination with Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman who became an object of caged display at exhibitions in London and Paris. Baartman's
body functioned as a "master text," allowing European audiences to cast their collective gaze on the racially and sexually marked Other in an era where locating the Other's imagined differences justified the project of exporting "civilization."