I haven’t given much thought to how I will broach the subject of Saartjie Baartman with my daughter. She’s four, so I have time. But someday, I will need to tell her that a Khoisan woman with steatopygia, an extreme development of fat on the buttocks, was once sold, caged, and displayed for passersby who poked, prodded, and mocked her. There will be no turning back from that; every moment thereafter, my little girl will not regard her body in quite the same sense of freedom. She will be more conscious of the ways in which features commonly associated with African ancestry — full lips, broad noses, and, as in Baartman’s case, large buttocks — have been objectified, commodified and sold in countries all over the world.
After I tell my daughter about Saartjie Baartman, I will show her the article Vogue.com published yesterday, which declared this “officially” the “era of the big booty.” I will point out the author’s assertion that Jennifer Lopez is “the original trailblazing butt girl.” Then, I’ll hone in on this line: “Today, Rihanna shows up to the CFDA Awards practically naked with her crack fully on display and walks off with a Fashion Icon Award.”
I am guessing my daughter will need a moment to collect thoughts. She may ask how long it’s been since Saartjie Baartman’s death, when her body was then dissected and its parts put on display. I will tell her Baartman died in 1815. Nearly 200 years later, people are still making a public spectacle of ample derrieres. But in doing so, they are erasing the pain and subjugation that enslaved women faced. In order to “celebrate” large backsides, it seems, the overwhelmingly white U.S. fashion industry must first attribute the trait to non-black women.
It isn’t about who gets credit for popularizing the “big booty.” It’s about who is erased and minimized in the process. “Vogue” writer Patricia Garcia seems to think that Rihanna’s arrival at the CFDA Awards with her backside exposed was made possible because of J.Lo. She does not account for the hundreds of thousands of black women in the history of the world who were stripped of their agency, placed “fully on display” against their wills, and sold to enslavers who used their free labor to feed the textile industries that have fueled the fashion market.
Representation and historical context matter. The ways in which black women and their bodies are discussed in mainstream, predominantly white media matters. “Vogue” isn’t the only publication to frame conversation like this poorly. Just this month, The New York Times published a piece on “natural hair” titled, “Curls Get Their Groove Back.” It’s a multi-paragraph missive about the “new” trend of white women eschewing hair-straightening and “cultural bias” against white women with curly hair. One line is given to the discussion of black hair:
And product lines like Miss Jessie’s have crossed over from the black community, which has its own flourishing natural-hair movement.
That “flourishing natural-hair movement” dates back to the 1960s.
To avoid leaving my daughter disheartened, I’ll make sure she knows that the need for diversity in newsrooms and on magazine staffs is well-documented. Buzzfeed in particular seems committed to championing that cause in the long-term. With its series on diversity in journalism, the site is issuing a challenge to other publications. Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation is also tracking the need for more nuanced and carefully worded discussions of race in reporting. In January, the organization released a study which found that two thirds of race-focused coverage in nearly 1,200 news articles and cable transcripts from 2013 “either emphasized alleged individual racism or prioritized voices that dismissed the persistence of racism as a significant force in our country today.” Only writers capable of dismissing racism’s persistence can arrive at conclusions that J.Lo pioneered the “big booty.” Only a racially disengaged newsroom could approve a piece about “natural hair” and relegate the decades-long, black natural hair movement to one line.
There is one medium that is already ahead of the game in providing diverse, nuanced representations of black women: the independent web series. Shows like “An African City,” “Life of Hers,” “American Koko,” and “Almost Home” serve not just as entertainment but as counternarratives. They place the voices of black women, their histories, and their experience in the foreground during a time when those voices are being buried at the bottom of articles and those histories are being obscured in praise of non-black women’s “big booties.”
By the time I have this conversation with my daughter, however, the open internet as we know it may have ceased to exist. While Vogue was publishing its racial-context-erasing piece yesterday, several high-traffic websites were participating in an Internet Slowdown Day, in protest of the Federal Communication Commission’s plans to implement new policies that will change who has fast access to websites and how.
Jay Cassano and Michael Brooks at “In These Times” explained the implications of these changes for marginalized communities:
With cell phone Internet thus hampered by a lack of net neutrality, home broadband, with its flat-rate monthly bill, would be the only place to turn for an open Internet. The problem is that a home broadband connection is precisely what many in marginalized communities lack. According to Pew, 15 percent of black adults and 22 percent of Hispanic adults have smartphones but no home broadband Internet—compared to just 6 percent of white ones.
At Al Jazeera America, writer Joseph Torres further explores what the end of net neutrality would mean for black online content creators and their ability to reach their demographics:
By threatening the access of communities of color to the information they need to participate fully in our society, the court’s decision reinforces the nation’s media inequality. People of color own only 3 percent of the nation’s commercial TV stations and 8 percent of commercial radio outlets. According to the FCC’s ownership records, the figure for TV does not even include black owners, since there are none.
“If you don’t like the media, make your own” has long been the rejoinder when black communities protest about representation. Now, our open access to providing “our own” content is in danger.
“This was never really about the ‘era of the big booty’ or Vogue, was it?” my clever kid might ask.
No, I’d reply. Not really. It’s about the future. Will we ever become a society that accepts the necessity of racial discourse in reporting? Even in our pop culture trend writing, will we ever resolve to challenge false representations and work that willfully ignores history until we begin to see less of it? Perhaps, by the time we’re ready to have this talk, my daughter and her generation will have answers for me.