Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France

Robin Mitchell’s preface to Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France is extremely moving. She begins with her personal encounter with the body cast of Sarah Baartmann, a South African woman put on display for white Europeans in London and France in the early 1800s. Mitchell’s recounting of her anticipation of and emotions in seeing Baartmann’s body cast aligns with recent works by Ashley D. Farmer and Nathan Dize about the experiences of Black researchers and the importance of researchers allowing themselves to emotionally respond to their source material.

Throughout Vénus Noire, Mitchell explores how white French men and women used three Black women to express their post-revolutionary anxieties about race and gender as they sought to define what it meant to be French between 1786 and 1870. Through her study of cultural representations of Baartmann, Charlotte Catherine Benezet Ourika, and Jeanne Duval, Mitchell demonstrates the importance of studying the continuities, particularly those regarding race, from the Old Regime to the French Revolution and Restoration, instead of seeing 1789 as a rigid break in time. Born in Senegal, Ourika was enslaved by a colonial official and given to a family in France in the 1780s. Duval, on the other hand, was born free in France and became an actress and the common-law wife of Charles Baudelaire in the mid-1800s. Mitchell shows how white French people grappled with their national identity vis-à-vis the perceived embodiment of the colonies in the bodies of these Black women, especially after the Haitian Revolution and the abolition of slavery in 1848.

Mitchell emphasizes how “Black women mattered” in nineteenth-century France, as evidenced by the tremendous amount of time and effort white Frenchmen and women devoted to trying to convince themselves and others that Black women lacked importance” (17). This argument raises important questions about the gap in the literature despite the historical significance of Black women and highlights why scholars need to continue Mitchell’s work to close the lacuna, giving these women their due in French history. Moreover, Mitchell employs interdisciplinary approaches and theories to interrogate a rich source base. For example, she engages with Edward Said’s and Robert Darnton’s works on cultural production in her analysis of plays, poems, drawings, paintings, fashion, and advertisements. She also includes twenty-five images in the book (unfortunately, all are black-and-white, likely due to reproduction costs). Mitchell uses art history and gender, political, and critical race theories to provide a much-needed focus on Black women in France.

In the first chapter, Mitchell provides biographical sketches of Baartmann, Ourika, and Duval before delving into a detailed analysis of representations of each woman in the remaining chapters. She synthesizes the existing literature on these women with a patchwork of primary sources, emphasizing the “fragmentary nature of information” regarding them and bringing attention to the difficulty in gathering sources on other Black women who garnered less public attention (49). Chapter two focuses on Baartmann. During her life, the French put her on display for private viewing based on class and assumed her voice and likeness in literary and artistic critiques of French society. After her death, French men made casts of her body and “scientifically” mutilated her buttocks, brain, and genitals. They did all this to keep white French gender norms in check, as Baartmann came to represent the hypersexualized, foreign Other. In the third chapter, Mitchell concentrates on the “Ourika mania” in nineteenth-century France. Unlike Baartmann and, later, Duval, Ourika was not alive when white French society obsessed over her in novels, plays, fashion, and even food. Despite her French upbringing, white French society never accepted her because of her race; her “foreignness was internal and integral to her black female body” (103). In the final chapter, Mitchell shifts focus to Duval. While most authors have fixated on Baudelaire, her common-law husband, diminishing or erasing her from his story, Mitchell turns the tables, using his writings and drawings and biographies to bring out her story. Particularly striking, Mitchell explains how biographers and editors of Baudelaire’s letters referred to Duval by her first name in their indices, demonstrating how French society continued to deny peoples of African descent a last name even after emancipation in 1848. While Baudelaire would not have achieved his fame without Duval as his muse, her race made her “ordinariness extraordinary” for French people (133).

The readable prose of Vénus Noire makes it highly accessible. Mitchell incorporates more understandable terminology, like racial ventriloquism and racial drag, to help readers relate to the historical unfamiliar. At the same time, there is significant information regarding specialized knowledge and historical context, so the book’s full impact could be lost on a general reader or undergraduate student. For example, Mitchell does not explain “the Praxitelian type” when discussing a literary reference to Baartmann (69). She also misses opportunities in chapter two to expand upon the racialization of the private and public spheres and cite further readings to help unfamiliar readers. As a relatively short book (only 140 pages, excluding back matter), there was room to expound in instances such as these.

In her conclusion, Mitchell explains how she came to research French “fantasies about black girls” after reading a biography of Josephine Baker, whose topless performances mesmerized white French audiences in the early twentieth century (137). Even today, one only needs to scroll through social media or access a major news outlet to see how some white French people still “Other” Black women. For instance, over the last two years, conservative politicians have targeted French-Senegalese spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye, mocking her bright-colored wardrobe as “circus clothes” and questioning her Frenchness because of her foreign birth. Despite Emmanuel Macron’s insistence on French universalism, it appears the French are still wrestling with what it means to be French and expressing their anxieties through portrayals of Black women. Mitchell’s research is invaluable in helping people understand the historical roots of such racial attitudes in France.

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Erica Johnson Edwards

Erica Johnson Edwards is an Assistant Professor of History at Francis Marion University. She teaches courses on European history, the Atlantic World, and historical writing. She is author of a monograph, Philanthropy and Race in the Haitian Revolution, part of the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Her current research focuses the symbolic importance of the Haitian Revolution and its leaders for Blacks in rural Oklahoma. She is an editor for ageofrevolutions.com. Follow her on Twitter@DrEricaJohnson.