To a Dark Girl
I love you for your brownness
And the rounded darkness of your breast.
I love you for the breaking sadness in your voice
And shadows where your wayward eye-lids rest.
Something of old forgotten queens
Lurks in the lithe abandon of your walk,
And something of the shackled slave
Sobs in the rhythm of your talk.
Oh, little brown girl, born for sorrow’s mate,
Keep all you have of queenliness,
Forgetting that you once were slave,
And let your full lips laugh at Fate!
—Gwendolyn Bennett, from Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets (1927)
Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman is recognized today as the first video vixen, probably the most degrading “first” of an African or person of color in all of history. Similar to the video vixens of today, who shows off their bodies to the pleasure of men in raunchy (usually rap) music videos, Saartjie Baartman was paraded around Europe in a traveling circus, her body put on display under the title, Hottentot Venus.
Black women’s bodies have always been a topic of discussion; since Saartjie Baartman, they’ve always been “on exhibit.” European explorers marveled at the African woman’s larger breasts, buttocks, and labia. They described their physical traits as abnormal to that of white woman. African women were characterized as hypersexual while white women were viewed as pure and delicate. White men put their wives on pedestals—frail, virginal angels, barely able to withstand childbirth—while at night they snuck into the slave quarters and lived out their sexual fantasies with the “jezebel” slave women, usually without consent.
This why so many slave mothers dreaded having daughters, because they knew the stigma of their bodies would force them to grow up too fast, that their masters’ eyes would soon be wandering. This is why fugitive slave and author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs, hid in an attack for seven years before finally escaping to the North. This is why Margaret Garner, the inspiration behind Toni Morrison’s Beloved, killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than allow her to be recaptured into slavery.
After her death in 1815, Saartjie Baartman’s body was dissected, her genitalia and buttocks analyzed as if they were scientific specimens. Her skeleton and body cast was put on display until 1974 and 1976 respectively when feminist argued for its removal on the grounds that it was a degrading representation of women. However, her remains weren’t returned to her home soil in South Africa until 2002, after endless legal back and forth.
I love Gwendolyn Bennett’s poem because it pays homage to the Dark Girl like Saartjie Baartman. She was physically characterized as abnormal and ugly, and was exploited as a sex object, but she is still a Queen. From her brown skin, to her round buttocks, to her full lips and wide nose, she is still beautiful. From the pain and depravity she had to endure while enslaved, she has only grown stronger. This is why Beyoncé’s new song “Formation” has quickly become and anthem for black women. Like “To a Dark Girl,” it expresses racial pride and affirmation of black female beauty.
For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for the dark girl. What delicacies do you see within her that the world has historically turned a blind eye to? Now is her time to be raised up on a pedestal. Debunk all the stereotypes. Admire her for her royal, brown elegance and grace alone.