The preface to Robin Mitchell's new book, Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France (University of Georgia Press, 2020) moves me. In it, the author tells the story of her first research trip to Paris and the profound moment of her encounter with a plaster cast of Sarah Baartman's body at the Musée de l'Homme. It is riveting, personal, and honest, the perfect entry into a book that is all of these things. Exploring the cultural production of French representations of three extraordinary Black women (Baartman, Ourika, and Jeanne Duval), the book interrogates the visual and literary imaginaries that white French men and women developed in relationship to these women's lives and bodies.
Subjected to a perverse "scientific" fascination, Baartman's body became "famous" throughout and beyond France as white gazes and fantasies sexualized and pathologized her for years until she died. Brought to France from Senegal by the Maréchal Prince de Beauvau, Ourika became the subject of what Mitchell characterizes as a cultural consumptive "mania" that both emulated and rejected her story and the possibilities of her "Frenchness". The lover and common law wife of poet Charles Baudelaire, Jeanne Duval lived an entire life in France, but could never be "French enough." Marked and minoritized by their racial difference, all three women became sites of fixation and memory for a white population seeking/needing constant shoring up of their gendered and racialized identities, and a society haunted by loss and defeat in the wake of the Haitian Revolution.
The book is so beautiful, so clearly written, so overflowing with injustice, meaning, and feeling. And Mitchell's voice is there throughout, finding and honouring the voices and lives of these women. It is a book for everyone.
Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and its empire. She is the author of Future Tense: The Culture of Anticipation in France Between the Wars (2009). Her current research focuses on the history of French nuclear weapons and testing since 1945. Her most recent article, ‘“No Hiroshima in Africa”: The Algerian War and the Question of French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara’ appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of History of the Present. She lives and reads on the unceded traditional territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) peoples known as Vancouver, Canada and hopes all listeners are keeping healthy and safe at this difficult time in our world. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Roxanne Panchasi is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada who specializes in twentieth and twenty-first century France and its empire. If you have a recent title to suggest for the podcast, please send her an email (email@example.com).