Nineteenth-century French print La Belle Hottentot of Saartjie Baartman
Wikimedia Commons

The perceived ownership of a black woman’s body is an issue deeply woven into the fabric of the ugliest pieces of history. This poisonous thinking has not been quarantined to one section of the globe. In the United States, it was this idea of “ownership” that dominated the thinking of plantation owners and allowed them to violate the bodies of women, deposit their seed and spew their unchecked power.

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This was arguably the ugliest manifestation, yet it’s hardly the only indication of assumed ownership. The story of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman exploited for her body, extends back to 1810. Yet the false sense of ownership over a woman’s body is ever present.

Saartjie Baartman, commonly known as Sarah or Sara Baartman, was reportedly sold to a British doctor and paraded in “freak shows” in Europe until she died. Because of Baartman’s larger, voluptuous frame, she was depicted as the main attraction in the shows. She was displayed almost completely naked while curious onlookers visually and physically explored her body.

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Think of curious third-graders at a “kid friendly” museum. Imagine the limitless probing young children would pursue knowing that they could fully explore their curiosity without seeking permission. But instead of an exhibit surrounded by kids exploring, imagine a black woman surrounded by Europeans who never even considered seeking permission to touch, prod and explore. Seek permission? And who exactly should seek her permission? The white men who owned her? Or should the white men who were present for the exhibit seek permission?

Not a single white man would have entertained such a thought. Why would they need permission? The decisions about her body, how it should be displayed, what it should look like and who had permission to touch it were clearly not hers to make. She was, after all, an exhibit. An attraction. Something with one purpose. It was almost as if she didn’t own her body.

When I first learned of Baartman, I immediately thought about black women (like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé) with beautiful bodies who pose seminude often. I was guilty of judging and labeling them. When I spoke about the topic of nudity and black women, Baartmaan was my go-to story. I would state things like, “Baartman was powerless in this exploitation; why would women allow themselves to be exploited like this?” “Why would they relinquish a power that Baartman never had?” I made a decision about what they were doing with their bodies. I decided that they were inappropriate and thus deserved the label I gave them. I named them, as if they were mine. 

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I suspect that I never truly saw their bodies as actually theirs. Their bodies do, in fact, belong only to them. Which means that they are allowed to express that freedom in whatever form they choose. For some, it means the freedom to cover their bodies. For other women, it is the freedom to choose not to cover their bodies. In both cases, the decision lies with the individual woman. Freedom can be expressed in both forms. An attempt to snatch this choice from a woman by treating her based on how she expresses her freedom is almost tantamount to attempting a form of ownership over her body.

I wasn’t alone in my problematic thinking. On any given day, the Internet can be a mirror to some of the most short-sighted thinking society has to offer. Without much effort, it’s easy to find memes or threads with a not-so-subtle context of this woman is a “ho” because … well, the reasons can vary depending on the rabbit hole you jump down.

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But the underlying premise is that some people decide to operate in a false sense of ownership over a woman’s body and make a decision over what is acceptable and permissible. Within this perceived ownership, they even decide what’s an “acceptable” number of partners a woman should sleep with. As if she isn’t free to make a decision about her own body. Like she is an exhibit. An attraction. Something with one purpose.

A man deciding what’s an “acceptable” number of sexual partners for a woman is only one level of perceived ownership. A deeper and far more problematic level of this perceived ownership is illustrated in how the rape of Sally Hemings is described in the newly released book Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings. This historical novel about our nation’s third president revisits what the author calls a relationship between Jefferson and the teenage black slave he raped for decades.

DNA evidence proves that Jefferson fathered six children with Hemings. He fathered children with a young slave and later enslaved their children. Yet somehow, this book is exploring what the author is calling the “ambiguities” of their “relationship.” According to reviews, the book explores how complicit the teenage slave was in her rape by the U.S. president … who owned her. To label it anything other than rape and consider in any way that Hemings may have been complicit is perceived ownership at its peak. It is the highest and most vile form of the many ways in which this notion exists.

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I understand that recognizing this concept may not be easy to grasp. Or perhaps on some level, it’s easier to pretend that it’s not an issue. However, the reality is that this ugly truth is as deep and pervasive as racism in America. Is it fair to say that the United States has made racial progress? Sure. We can all make a case for how much racial progress has been made since the days of burning crosses. But it’s still not something that can be ignored.

There are far too many examples of systematic racism and macroaggression present. The same is true in terms of how we view power dynamics and perceived ownership over the bodies of black women. We can make the argument that progress has been made. Yet there are far too many examples of rape culture and attempts at policing a black woman’s body to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Shanita Hubbard is a mom, writer, social-justice advocate and Nas stan and is also the lover of a great twist-out and good books. Follow her on Twitter.