In 2014, I spoke on a panel called “Crossing (Imagined) Borders: Research, Writing, and the Challenges of the 21st Century,” at the Writing Research Across Borders annual conference in Paris. My paper concerned the ways I’d heard and seen English used while I taught in Liberia – everything from conversations with palm-wine tappers and motorcycle taxi drivers, government radio, rusty signs painted by over-ambitious NGOs (like mine), or corrupt NGOs (also like mine) the soft coding of bribes, folktales, drums, aphorisms, and dances. I’d planned on describing how English has undergone a de-creolization process – after the civil war, the colonized had less affection for the language of the colonizers, and began using indigenous languages as much, if not more than English, resulting in the dissolution of a national Liberian English into 16 separate sub-regional English-es. All of this sounded good and academic and enough to get my university to pay for a trip to Paris.
The day before my presentation, a colleague and I passed a statue near the Latin Quarter. Someone had tagged the bronze with fluorescent green spray paint. My colleague asked why would anyone deface public art? I replied that the answer was right in front of us: the tagger needed to be seen. My colleague said there are ways to be seen and ways to be heard but vandalism wasn’t one of them. I replied that when you’re invisible, even being a criminal means you’re a human being with rights, with laws that apply to you and your body. But when you’re invisible – I said – they can do anything to you.
Of course, I was thinking of Sarah Baartman, a.k.a. the Hottentot Venus. In America, I teach my students about her as an intersection of race, gender, narrative, and invisibility. They react the way most of us reacted when we heard her story: shock, horror, anger, and not a few saying “and this shit still happens today…”
The first time I taught her story though, the reaction was quite different. I’d become disillusioned with my MFA program and joined that over-ambitious and corrupt NGO doing work in Africa. They sent me to Liberia, a nation built on disillusionment. I quickly learned that many people – locals and ex-pats – couldn’t see me. I know you’re thinking “Andy, you’re a big dude. How could they miss you?” And then I could tell you of the times waiters stopped taking my order mid-sentence because a white man walked into the restaurant. Or the nicknames I acquired – whiteman and bossman – because I was an American and only whites got to live in America. Or the silence that falls in a taxi when the local driver pays a bribe on behalf of his passengers so the police won’t detain us. The time I was detained by local police and forced to sign a false confession. Or the time I asked a local colleague to tell me what slavery was like from his side of the Atlantic and he shrugged and said, “We heard it was bad. But you survived, so it could not have been so-so bad and we have problems of our own as you can see.” So their reaction to Sarah Baartman shouldn’t have surprised me. It should not have hurt. But when I taught her story in Liberia, to those same sons and daughters of market women and taxi drivers and farmers and palm-wine tappers, to former child soldiers still addicted to brown-brown and violence, to the tiny handful of lucky elites who made it into “the original HBCU” Cuttington University, they said Sarah Baartman deserved it. She had left her home and become a whore, so she shouldn’t have expected anything better. My Liberian students didn’t – or couldn’t – see Sarah Baartman.
My colleague headed over to the Julia Child store to take selfies. Lost in thought, I wandered into an unfamiliar neighborhood. I looked up and saw a gold-leafed statue and fountain mounted into the second-floor of a building. The name on the statue said “Cuvier” and I thought Cuvier, Cuvier, how do I know that name…and then with a flash and a shock I realized this was a statue to the man who dissected Sarah Baartman in the name of science. He’d cut out her brain and her genitals and displayed them in jars. And I was staring at his statue feeling a mix of fury and loss and….then I looked at the street name. Rue Cuvier. Dammit, I thought, they named a street after him? They named a street after this motherfucker? Whatever. I don’t need to be here but if I had a can of spray pain(t) I’d write SARAH BAARTMAN SARAH BAARTMAN say her name SARAH BAARTMAN on that fountain and get myself arrested because my blackness is not a card a play or a thing to be seen but a fire that lights the universe. But I didn’t have any spray paint.
I turned away, crossed the street, muttering, and ran smack into the entrance for the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. On Rue Cuvier.
This was it.
This was the place.
Sarah Baartman’s remains were sold to Cuvier here.
She’d been dissected and displayed here.
Centuries of stereotypes and suppositions about black people and our bodies emanated from here.
I wanted to run. I wanted to cry. I wanted spray paint. But some part of me demanded to see the site of memory, and so I went in. I don’t know what I expected – a plaque maybe? – but you’ve probably figured out how this story ends. Nothing marked Sarah’s presence. No marker, no photos, no guided tour. The old Anatomy building has been turned into a café.
I stayed up all night and wrote a new presentation. I wrote about how language in general and English especially can damn us or save us, unite or divide, conceal or reveal, sanctify or shame and the job of the writer is to illuminate how we do all of those things to each other and ourselves. It was a really good speech. But the conference gave us a Saturday morning slot. Only one person attended. His first language wasn’t English and frustrated, he left before it was my turn to speak.