Hartley on Mitchell (2020)

Mitchell, Robin. Vénus noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France. U of Georgia P, 2020, pp. xix + 183, ISBN 9780820354323

Vénus noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France analyzes the politically charged place of Black women in the cultural productions of nineteenth-century France, including theater, poetry, fiction, journalism, painting, cartoons, legal documents, and scientific writings. Robin Mitchell focuses on the representation of three historical individuals: Sarah Baartmann the “Hottentot Venus” (d. 1816), Ourika the Black aristocrat or household pet (d. circa 1793), and Jeanne Duval, the common-law wife of Charles Baudelaire from 1842 until his death in 1868. These three women were portrayed and ventriloquized by many white French men and women, yet we know little of them. Their popularization under the pens of these white authors, scientists, and artists entailed their erasure as individuals: they were not so much human subjects as foils used to articulate a sense of French national identity as white and masculine. These Black women were threatening to such an identity because of their presence on French soil, rather than in the sealed-off world of France’s colonies in Africa and the West Indies, imagined as savage, exotic, and atemporal places, populated by subjugated people with the same qualities. Mitchell demonstrates that although Sarah Baartmann, Ourika, and Jeanne Duval’s entrance into the French popular imagination followed different routes and resulted in a variety of treatments, their bodies were used as a canvas to assert racial and gender boundaries at a time of social and political unrest and colonial anxiety. In particular, Mitchell argues that in all three cases, the representations of their bodies was a response to Haitian independence in 1804 (formally, the French colony of Saint-Domingue).

The book is divided into four chapters. The first chapter offers an overview of all available information about the lives of Sarah Baartmann, Ourika, and Jeanne Duval. The remaining three chapters are devoted to these women’s respective portrayals, ventriloquizations, and creations in the cultural productions of white metropolitan France. Chapter one is of great historical significance in its own right, but also serves as a point of reference for the following three chapters, making the reader aware of the gap between reality and fantasy. The book’s conclusion briefly shows the continuing legacy of the nineteenth-century’s treatment of Black women in twentieth-century perceptions of Louisiana-born dancer Josephine Baker as a hyper-sexualized African “sauvage.” 

Vénus noire is a tour de force. The book remains nuanced while covering highly provocative and problematic material. It demonstrates the benefits of bringing insights from postcolonial studies, gender studies, and critical race studies to the cultural history of nineteenth-century France. Mitchell focuses on the representation of three women, but these women were the subject of many treatments across different genres and media. Each chapter therefore draws on a wealth and variety of sources, but in a manner that flows naturally, making room for detail without ever losing analytical thrust. Finally, as well as being illuminating to experts in nineteenth-century French studies, the book’s clear and accessible style makes it a valuable resource for students.

I was particularly struck by the book’s unflinching description of the mutilation of Sarah Baartmann’s body by Cuvier in an attempt to “scientifically” prove the inferiority of Black people (3841); Ourika-mania as the dismembering of the human individual into consumable parts, such as ribbons and biscuits (9293, 103); and the vicious and dehumanizing treatment of Jeanne Duval continuing well beyond the nineteenth century, since it informed a great part of twentieth-century literary criticism (12630). The book also tackles aspects of racism that continue to exist today, as its language and narratives have changed little since the nineteenth century. This includes: French authors’ preference for white savior narratives, which involved circumnavigating the topic of slavery in order to present Black women as either desiring their subjugated status or as protected by their white benefactors (33, 86, 89, 102, 11011, 140); the portrayal of African women as desirable because easier to dominate (67); the desire for Black women to “go back to Africa,” which was a choice ending for plays about Ourikathe real Ourika died in France (94, 102); and anxieties surrounding black face (95–96). It is no exaggeration to say that this book will change the way we view nineteenth-century French culture. I would not be surprised if it became a classic in the field.

Julia Caterina Hartley
University of Warwick