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Gabeba Baderoon, Ph.D.

Baartman and the Private

Gabeba Baderoon, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Women's Studies and African Studies, Penn State University Park Campus (

How can we look at Sara Baartman differently? One answer to this question is not to represent her, to respect the limits of the purposes to which we can put her memory, her body, and her history. For me, this means to consider a new definition of the “private,” drawing on recent analyses of autobiography and documentary forms in Africa. An originary moment in studies of Baartman occurs in Zoe Wicomb’s essay “Shame and the Case of the Coloured,” which places Baartman for the first time placed in a feminist history of slavery in South Africa. In the essay, Wicomb takes the radical theoretical step rereading Baartman within a rigorously nonnationalist analysis of South Africa’s memory of slavery and sexuality. She proposes not a heroic recovery of Baartman, but situates her within the lingering self-denial and shame generated by the memory of slavery among the descendants of enslaved people in South Africa. Wicomb posed the ethical question of how to speak about Baartman without invoking her for contemporary ends that neatened the untidiness and ambiguities of history or repeating its violations. Pumla Gqola’s compelling essay “(Not) representing Sara Baartman” proposes that in the face of the “theoretical industry” around Baartman, that there is a limit on what can be known about Baartman’s life. I use this approach to theorize Baartman and the “private.”