[The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the overall politics of Natural Hair Mag, or the views of the other writers. This is purely an opinion piece from the author!]
I’m sure by now, most have already heard about Nicki Minaj’s album cover–not necessarily because of anything Minaj has said– but because of the paternalistic ways that her body has been treated by black men and white women/feminists a like. There’s a necessary, important conversation lurking under all this mess that can hopefully take place with black feminists [as it did with the Beyoncé fiasco] who “get” the issues, but unfortunately, we have to first sift through the piles of misogynistic, racist statements about black women’s bodies before we can actually move on to more productive conversations.
White anti-porn feminist Gail Dines had to chime into the discussion with a random historical lesson about black women’s bodies in slavery on Huffington Post. Just in case we black folk don’t already know our OWN history, she tells it to us in a basic, manipulative way to add some “brownie” points [pun-intended] onto her white feminist cv since she’s just so invested in understanding black women’s sexuality. She strategically brings up Saartjie Baartman, an enslaved black woman in Africa who was kidnapped and taken to Europe. She was put in “freak shows” and exhibits because her features strayed from that of the ideal feminine white woman’s body. However, Dines’ random tidbit of already known information falls flat because the only thing Baartman and Minaj have in common is the fact that their black bodies have been appropriated by the white gaze. The thing that links Minaj and Baartman is white supremacy. That’s it. FYI: Having a black body isn’t a product of slavery, however, white people marking the black body as hypersexual and excessive IS.
Black women’s bodies are routinely interrogated whenever we attempt to employ femininity or sexuality considering culturally, our ideas about femininity and sexuality are hijacked by whiteness. In fact, Black women are often seen as imitating white sexuality, so our “inauthentic” bodies are always up for discussion in the mainstream. Shaadi Devereaux’s essay titled, “Rollersets & Realness: Black Womanhood Defined as Drag Performance” states:
“I once tweeted that black womanhood is inherently viewed as drag performance. A loaded statement to be sure, but also one I’m very confident in making. When the image of the perfect woman is coded from childhood as Snow White, the fairest and most sunburned in all the land, the idea becomes that all the rest of us are just donning costumes to imitate true beauty. The assumption is always that Black women are all imitating “true women” with long silky hair, light eyes and a list of features not associated with Blackness.”
Black femininity is seen as a drag performance; therefore, our articulations of femininity and sexuality are generally interrogated and/or trashed. Minaj depicted this brilliantly through her Instagram photo which featured white Sports Illustrated models positioned in similar ways to herself, but as she notes, these images are “acceptable” simply because the women are white.
The fact that Dines even felt compelled to bring up Saartjie Baartman in reference to Minaj showcasing her own butt demonstrates the problem with white-centric logic quite beautifully. In fact, in her essay, Dines says:
“Irrespective of Minaj’s own personal economic and cultural power – and what sometimes looks like an ironic rebranding of racist images in her videos – the notion of black women as hypersexualized and promiscuous still shapes the dominant ideology in the US.”
Within a white imagination, the only thing that black women can seemingly do is re-brand racist images that they never made. This showcases the limits of Dines and other white folks [and men’s] perceptions of women. To assume Minaj is “re-branding” racist images constructed by white people means that there is no imagination outside of the white imagination. It implies that black women can’t envision themselves beyond the constructions that white people created. In fact, Dines and others center whiteness each time they bring up slavery when a black woman tries to show her sexuality in the mainstream marketplace because it demonstrates that black women’s narratives begin with white people. These people like to think that black women never existed before slavery. Starting our history with slavery and colonization is merely another tall tale of white supremacy.
This is what I’d like to call the Baartman Effect: It’s the idea that black women’s bodies were only created when white people first saw them. We became socially and historically relevant through slavery, and because of that, we can’t possibly exist without the gaze of whiteness. Within this configuration, white people seemingly have the right to define black women’s images forever because they created them.
Black women apparently have no narrative beyond what white people have created for us. People keep trying to understand the black body through a white, hetero-patriarchal lens and that’s the problem. This is what happens whenever white people shout “slavery” every time they see a black woman’s body. It’ s not really an authentic quest to understand black women’s lot, but a disciplinary action and reminder that white people HAVE defined, and will continue to define our bodies. White women like Dines and black men like Creekmur like to flex their social power over black women by reminding us that we can never define ourselves.
People assume they can explain away all contemporary actions of black women by simply looking into our past violent collisions with white supremacy. This trend of pathologizing black femininity continues to colonize contemporary attempts that we black women make to empower ourselves.
We have to be careful when we share Baartman’s story, because remember, it’s not just Baartman’s narrative–it’s white supremacy’s story with black women’s bodies. Baartman had a narrative before she was carted off to Europe, but apparently THAT story is inconvenient.
Rather than telling the Baartman story to black women, white people should learn it because Baartman’s horrible experiences in life were in part due to white people. Baartman did nothing wrong. That’s the whole point of the story. The embarrassing part of the Baartman story wasn’t her butt, but white people’s fascination with her departure from white femininity. Baartman’s body was just fine. It became a problem when white people said it was and black women have been unfairly carrying that white burden to this day to such an extent that whenever we wear business suits, dresses, or g-strings, it becomes part of the white colonialist reflex to immediately mark us as “hyper-sexual.” Our “hyper-sexuality” has nothing to do with us really, but white peoples fetishization of us.
The white colonialist gaze is hyper-sexual, not our bodies. Naturally, anything that stands before this gaze will be marked as problematic and excessive, so rather than sifting through and critiquing each image the gaze looks upon, why don’t we attempt to dismantle the white gaze?
In reality, Baartman was never really set free because the legacy of hijacking the destiny of black women’s bodies still exits to this day, and that’s all I see with the Minaj story. Regardless if you think the image is distasteful or awesome, the fact that like Baartman, the only thing we’re talking about in regards to Minaj is her ass, says something about the soul-less depths of white supremacy. Dines shares the horror that Baartman went through while ironically reducing Minaj to just a “big” ass. Her article “Nicki Minaj: Little More Than A Big Butt?” can ironically be answered with a big “no.”
The saddest part about Saartjie’s story is that her narrative is framed as beginning and ending with white people. We will never be able to know her story beyond slavery. We can’t continue this tradition of hijacking black women’s stories and bodies. Saartjie had a narrative before and beyond whiteness, but because of the drastic limitations of the white gaze and imagination, she could never be perceived as multi-dimensional, and that’s what white supremacy has done to black women. It has attempted to discipline us into one-dimensional subjects so that our physical features are the only things that stand out before our talent, creativity and intelligence. We forget that Minaj’s image is attached to an album full of her songs. She’s not a name-less video girl that you see in mainstream hip-hop music videos. Not surprisingly, people like Dines need the context of slavery to understand Minaj whereas black women already know her and her politics.
The problem is not Baartman’s butt, or Minaj’s g-string, it’s the white gaze which has a fixed understanding of the black woman’s body such that even when black women do try to empower themselves or create new images for themselves [whether it’s sexual or not], the white imagination can only filter these images through a one-dimensional, white-centered lens meaning that black women can’t win no matter what we do…
If we attempt to be sexual like Rihanna, Beyonce, and Minaj, we’re immediately reminded that we’re “sluts” [Thanks Warpaint!] or that we were once slaves. It’s as though we’re not allowed to speak for ourselves which makes sense considering this country has a reputation for not really trusting brown knowledge’s in the first place.
The limited way that we talk about Minaj’s body [as well as Baartman’s] is merely a reflection of the one-dimensional, predictable core of the white imagination. We have fixed white-centric scripts for black women’s bodies. We have tired theory that keeps resurrecting Baartman’s body to discipline black women from exploring their own.
We have no mainstream way of discussing black women’s bodies through a pleasure politic because black women are not supposed to experience pleasure because SLAVERY. The fiasco over Beyonce demonstrated these limitations brilliantly. We need a new grammar system of understanding black women’s sexuality. We can’t keep deferring to our white slavery text books to decode contemporary black women’s femininity.
Minaj should be proud that in a time and era where black women are supposed to feel shameful about their bodies [as they tried to do with Baartman] she resists and holds up her own. Minaj does something Baartman didn’t have the privilege to do because she was enslaved by white people: she bares her ass to the world and tells us to kiss it.