Michelle Obama – The Next Hottentot Venus?

What will they say about her ascension as the First Lady? My first impulse is fearful. Ms. Obama smartly has not let on just how smart she is. But while we wait for her next move (will she avoid Senator Clinton’s grave error and bake the damn cookies?), how will they/we speak about her? Already, I’ve heard “critiques” of her changing hair texture. Huh? Yes, whenever I meet a Princeton and Harvard graduate, I want to focus on her hair …

Which reminds me of the days of old (one hopes) when white people were enthralled by the physical differences between “theirs” and our races. Please note that I do not condone this bland, generic distinction; white people come in all kinds of ethnic packages and are not without “color” as well. We are full of differences that the power structure, in favor of maintaining its institutionalized power, would like to render invisible. Alas, America would have us see otherwise…

Why wouldn’t we want to discuss other interesting facts about the First Lady-elect, such as:

* Michelle Obama’s thesis was on racial divide [“Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.”]

“Obama writes that the path she chose by attending Princeton would likely lead to her ‘further integration and/or assimilation into a white cultural and social structure that will only allow me to remain on the periphery of society; never becoming a full participant.’” http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0208/8642.html

* To her friends, Michelle Obama seems to manage public and private pressures with effortless poise. She is intimately involved with her husband’s work, reading drafts of his major speeches and tweaking his big ideas and little punctuation choices alike, reports Newsweek. http://www.diversityinc.com/public/1184.cfm

* And oh, a whole slew of other interesting facts, if Wikipedia is to be believed:

At Princeton , she challenged the teaching methodology for French because she felt that it should be more conversational. As part of her requirements for graduation, she wrote a thesis entitled, “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community.” She obtained her Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard Law School in 1988.[18] While at Harvard, she participated in political demonstrations advocating the hiring of professors who are members of minorities.

She met Barack Obama when they were among very few African Americans at their law firm and she was assigned to mentor him while he was a summer associate. Their relationship started with a business lunch and then a community organization meeting where he first impressed her. The couple’s first date was to the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing. The couple married in October 1992, and they have two daughters, Malia Ann (born 1998) and Natasha (known as Sasha) (born 2001).

Throughout her husband’s 2008 campaign for President of the United States, she has made a “commitment to be away overnight only once a week — to campaign only two days a week and be home by the end of the second day” for their two children.

She once requested that Barack, who was then her fiancé, meet her prospective boss, Valerie Jarrett, when considering her first career move. Now, Jarrett is one of her husband’s closest advisors.

Michelle Obama as well as her daughters are said to be avid hula hoopers. Barack Obama told People Magazine that one of his wife’s secret talents is that she can really hoop. “She is the best Hula-Hooper I know. Once she gets the rhythm going, she can drop to her knees!” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelle_Obama


Jarrett herself is a fascinating woman to boot. But no time to research & report at the moment.

Nonetheless, there are so many more worthwhile details about First Lady-elect Obama to consider rather than spend time critiquing her appearance or falling back onto stereotypes. I refer to the Venus Hottentot here for two reasons – 1.) There is a history/precedent for the ways the media will subtlety and blatantly “report” on Michelle Obama (I’m certain she is well aware of this history) that will be evidenced by what journalists focus on and the language they use to report on these aspects of her and her life, and 2.) I’m amazed that so many of my students have never heard of the atrocities Sara Baartman was forced to endure, even after death. Historical knowledge is vital in understanding how our institutionalized racism and sexism is so quietly enforced on a daily basis.  How many others aren’t aware of this unfortunate slice of history?

It saddens me how quickly the ways Hillary Clinton was recently talked about are forgotten, whether one approved of her or not – as though to discuss the rampant sexism in our culture risks alienating each other. Aren’t we already alienated via our separate groups? No one is safe from the punishments of how the power structure works, even those at the very top. Even a rich, white, conservative, religious, heterosexual male could fall from grace and be mistreated as a low class citizen.

So without a doubt, racism, however subtle, and popularized sexist language will surround the reports of the new First Lady’s affairs. To call those occasions out and examine them is to study the very fabric through which we see each other in America – and to address the great divide that certainly still exists among us. But to do so is also difficult in the extreme, and hence, unpopular. The hope that has arrived with President-elect Obama surely would, at least partially, seek to obliterate the roots of racism and sexism in what we say about the new first couple, no? It seems Ms. Obama herself would be (and has been) keen on such examination.

I’ll get off my soapbox for now. Without further ado, I remind you all of the Venus Hottentot, via the Diary of An Anxious Black Woman:

Baartman was already a married woman when she experienced one of these extermination raids on her community;. she lost her husband and family in this the raid, and eventually she migrated to the urban center of the Cape Town for survival, where she worked as a servant to a Boer farmer named Peter Cezar.
It was at Cezar’s home where his brother, Hendrik Cezar, first noticed Baartman during a visit to the house and later conceived of the “Hottentot Venus” show during his visit. The show, which would take place in London at the famous Piccadilly Circus, would exploit European interests in African natives, especially in the “Hottentots,” who had already become mythical in the European imagination. The Hottentot Venus show would also capitalize on the prurient interests in so-called primitive sexuality, described in the tall-tale accounts of explorers who fabricated stories of “Hottentot” women’s oversized buttocks and mysterious “Hottentot apron,” an extra flap of skin covering the vaginal area.


This is not the first time nor will it be the last that Mrs. Obama (who just a couple of weeks ago was an elitist, right? oh, and an unpatriotic one at that) will have her name and image dragged tarnished.

Not the first time for her, not the first time for black women in this country by a long shot. Anxious Black Woman discusses the parallel between contemporary fascination with/revulsion of the female black body and the Hottentot Venus (above).

–On Michelle Obama being referred to as “Obama’s baby mama)


* Bill O’Reilly: “I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels.”


* In-depth discussion about such representations on Feministing.


* From the beginning: Fox Anchor Calls Obama Fist Pound A “Terrorist Fist Jab”


The new Michelle Obama Watch website is up and running. The site is designed to be “a repository of all of the criticism, praise, and general chicanery thrown at Michelle Obama …”

Michelle Obama is an impressive and inspiring woman who consistently gets her accomplishments downplayed because of both her gender and her race. Pissed off about the media misogyny thrown at Hillary Clinton? Angry about the racism leveled at Barack Obama? None of that is right, but remember that theirs are the credentials and character that are supposed to be under scrutiny. And yeah, Michelle knew what she was getting herself into when she signed up for the presidential race. But the fact remains that if we’re upset about sexism against Hillary and racism against Barack, we should be doubly upset about the racism and sexism against Michelle — especially because in addition to beating her down, opponents are actually using her as a weapon against her husband. The implication is that they must share the same views — because women can’t come up with any on their own. (The same thing happened to Hillary whenever she was grilled on previous positions taken by Bill as though disagreeing with them was akin to contradicting herself.) And if Barack can’t even keep his wife in line, how’s he going to run the country, right?

This needs to stop, but it’s probably not going to. And so we really need to start paying attention.


p.s. For the poets in the house, some bon mots via James Finnegan: Part of the Academy of American Poets’ Forum 2008, a full day of panel discussions yesterday at NYU produced a series of conversations that explored the mysteries of creativity and writing from a number of angles:

Ron Padgett: The best poems make me dance in my head.

Lyn Hejinian: The collision of natural place vs the built environment is a vast impasse, the big aporia. I feel a horrified, appalled grief about the built environment. I loathe concrete.

Robert Pinsky: Contemporary poetry is informed largely by translations from non-Western sources.

Susan Stewart: When we’re born, we enter the world through a door that won’t allow us to return. When we die, we leave the world through a door that won’t allow us to return.

Stewart: We turn to the Light, but it blinds us, and we must turn away.

Ron Padgett: Any line repeated many times is not the same thing. It goes through transformations.

Louise Glück: All memorable poems are difficult. But that doesn’t mean you must write a poem that is so harrowing and violently perceptive that people flee from it.

Glück: Every great poem teaches its readers how to read it.

Carl Phillips: Poets see things clearly that other people either (a) don’t see clearly, or (b) can see, but more easily turn away from.

Ellen Bryant Voight: Poetry presents difficulties of several kinds: Density, Reference, Protean form, Erasure, Derangement of senses, and Tonal complexity. Easily accessible poetry has no tonal complexity, or no tone at all.

Carl Phillips: Reading a poet’s entire body of work chronologically shows a record of a mind surprising itself, and then incorporating those surprises.

Glück: A poem begins as an urgent, felt need to bring a perception into a form.

James Longenbach: A good poem teaches the writer how to write it.

Carl Phillips: A good poem teaches its readers how to read themselves as people.

Ellen B Voight: The difficulty and discipline of Art gets us out of the igloo of the Self.

James Longenbach: when a student complains that a poem is boring, I say, “That’s fine. But it’s your fault.”

Gerald Stern: I’m disorganized today. It’s good to be disorganized. It makes you pay attention.

Frank Bidart: Poems are models of Self-making.

Sharon Olds: My early work was informed by a counter-phobic boldness.

Gary Snyder: Place is more important to our identity than race or gender. Place gives us our body. Place is possible on any scale.

Lyn Hejinian: I look for the sublime point of encounter. When unlike things encounter each other they create an extraordinary event.

Hejinian: Every idea has a terrain, and every work has a contextual landscape. Some writing is highly focused, poly-focused. It is a writing of rolling surfaces with peaks and valleys that fold into the whole.

Victor H. Cruz: The Caribbean is a form of Cubism: elements of Spanish, Taino, and African, with language and accents a jagged line that runs through the painting.

Hejinian: The best antidote to global capitalism is global imagination. Imagination is not administratable.


Civil Rights Gender Politics Poetics Poetry Political Campaign Politics Presidential Election 08 Race racism Sexism Sexy Video Voices Women Women's Rights

AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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