Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France is a rigorously researched study of Black women in France in the nineteenth century that explores the production of whiteness and blackness through the cultural mania surrounding three women––Sarah Baartmann, Ourika, and Jeanne Duval. While reading Vénus Noire, I was moved by how open Mitchell is about her own positionality vis-à-vis her historical subjects. I found that it not only reinforced the narrative thrust of the book, but it demonstrated for me the importance of embracing feelings of vulnerability when researching and writing uncomfortable histories. In this interview with Robin Mitchell, we discuss Vénus Noire and the process of writing a book about three Black women as subjects instead of objects of nineteenth-century French history.
Nathan H. Dize: Reading your book cover to cover has been an experience. I’m wondering if you could give us a little bit of your backstory and what led you to study the colonial fantasies of Black women in nineteenth-century France? When did you first learn about the women—Sarah Baartmann, Ourika, and Jeanne Duval—who would be later known collectively as portrayals of “la Vénus noire”?
Robin Mitchell: Thank you, Nathan, I appreciate that. I think I have an interesting back story here, in that when I went to Graduate School, I had plans to study Josephine Baker. What I actually thought is that I was going to study something I called the “Josephine Baker myth,” because every time I told white people in France what I was doing, they all looked at me, smiled, and said, “Josephine,” and I was really fascinated why that was their only location for black womanhood. I also saw places where black women would pop up and it was in places that didn’t seem to correspond with what was being said about them.
It was really only after I started looking at Josephine Baker, and trying to make sense out of why her body did so much work for white French men and women, that I found Sarah Baartmann. After I found her, all other bets were off! I realized the reason that many French people were reacting that way is because there had been a history of other black female bodies that had been objectified in very particular kinds of ways. From Sarah Baartmann, that led me to Jeanne Duval, which was really fun since no one acknowledged her being of mixed-race, except in relationship with how Charles Baudelaire wrote about her. She was also kind of bitchy and mean at times (while other times she was kind and compassionate), and I sort of fell in love with the fact that she was human—that she sometimes reacted to the things that happened to her with anger. I thought that was sort of brilliant. And then after that I found Ourika—or I should say, in the case of all of these three women, I believe that they found me.
NHD:When I read academic prose, I am always drawn to the moments when the scholar puts her- or himself into the story; you do this early on in your preface. I was moved not only by your willingness to acknowledge your linguistic vulnerability when visiting the Musée de l’homme, one of the archives you consult, but also by your emotional response when you first saw Sarah Baartmann’s plaster body cast. The archive and study are often very personal experiences; what do you think we gain by reading stories like the one you tell about your encounter with Baartmann’s cast?
RM: Their stories became really important to me. And I felt a huge responsibility to do justice to them. I didn’t want heroines. I wanted people in as much as I could flesh them out. I also knew being a black woman, people were going to assume that I couldn’t be objective, and so I thought I’m going to just get ahead of this story and say, “I can be both objective, and vulnerable to these stories; I don’t have to stand off while these terrible things happen to them and pretend that it doesn’t matter.” The preface was saying what I thought people reading were going to be thinking, and that I didn’t have to pretend to be something I am not. I think you’re absolutely right about the archives being personal, but I also think as historians, pretending that we are not implicated in what we do is disingenuous. There is a reason we have colleagues to tell us “you’re not being objective here.” My point is that all scholars need that. I’m no different because I look like my subjects.
I set up the stories very deliberately. I wanted readers to understand that in their own time, people knew things about all of these women. That they didn’t just exist in fantasies of white French men and women. That they walked up and down streets, that they bought bread, that they sold their furniture when they were poor, that they were in the hospital. That they actually functioned in French space. And so, starting out with biography was really crucial to me, before moving to what is essentially made up nonsense by white French men and women after that. Each of the women in the subsequent chapters represent the fantasies of the people that are putting them together. And those fantasies are coming from all kinds of tensions about race, about gender, about sexuality. That they came out of reactions to the loss of Haiti. You asked, particularly, in the case of Duval, why she was so interesting to me and it’s because she’s a black French woman. She speaks French, she was likely born in France, she has a white French father and grandfather; her life is in France—and yet, so many people had to make up stories to prove that she wasn’t legitimate as French. Just like Sarah Baartmann, just like Ourika. And I found that really maddening, and fascinating. I think most of the fantasies that I looked at—for me happily, because I love popular culture—pop up in these weird cultural moments: in food, in fashion, in colors, in plays, in operas, and just in the most ridiculously surprising places.
NHD: In the case of all three women, Baartmann, Ourika, and Duval, you pay particular attention to the way their stories are written, how these women are products of French colonial fantasies, and, particularly in the case of Duval, how some of these fantasies persist in the secondary literature. Can you talk about what it was like to collect these stories and where you had to look for them?
RM: Collecting the stories was completely frustrating, to be perfectly frank. I looked everywhere for them because the French archives aren’t set up for my type of work. So I couldn’t go into an archive and say, “I’m looking for black women.” Well, I could, and I did, and often met with blank stares. And so, it took me a lot longer than I think it did for a lot of other historians, because I had to figure out how to find them, and I then found them in places I guess I didn’t always expect. The notion of the famous quote “all blacks are male” meant that women were often hidden in plain sight. Like, who names a ham after a black woman?! I remember going to Musée Carnavalet, and saying that I was studying black women, and they looked at me and basically said, “yeah we can’t help you.” And right behind this guy’s head, while he was talking to me, was the word, “Nègre,” on the wall. And I thought, “well you’ve got blackness, literally on your wall,” and you know, it was met by a completely blank stare. And I remember walking through the musée feeling really dejected, and came across the painting “Galerie du Palais Royal,” where there was a black woman in the corner of the painting. And I remember staring at her for a long, long time—subsequently, I found out that her name is most likely Esther. But when I started looking around, when I was in museums and I looked at paintings, I saw black women looking back at me. When I read things and they were alluding to blackness in really particular kinds of gendered ways, I realized, “Okay, I’m surrounded in many ways by blackness. I just have to figure out how to pull that and have something to say about it. Because they are there for a reason.” And quite honestly that took me a really long time to figure out. But once I did, I felt like I saw black women everywhere.
NHD: Sarah Baartmann, Ourika, and Jeanne Duval are everywhere throughout the nineteenth century, their likenesses are in everything from literature to advertisements. In the book, too, you’ve provided images of their likenesses so that the reader can get a better sense of how they permeated and saturated French culture. What is it like to write with these images in mind, especially given the context of their production? Was this a challenge?
RM: Writing about the imagery that I saw was also difficult. One of the reasons, I think, is because black women are often shown in ways that are humiliating and degrading. This notion that you get a close up of a vulva or a clitoris, and you’re supposed to see otherness or strangeness in it, is difficult. The way people talk about black women’s bodies as if they were meat in some cases, or some freakish kind of eroticism, or merely as a fetish, is hard. I think that’s hard to write about well. And there were times where I had to really step back from the book. I think there were times where I had a fairly low-grade depression going, because I was just surrounded by these images that were so awful, and they made me sick to my stomach. And what brought me back to them was feeling like I had a responsibility to try to make meaning out of what I saw. Because I saw something, and I wasn’t sure if anybody else saw it. Of course they did, but at the time I thought, “if I’m seeing these things it has to mean something. There is too much here for it not to be meaningless.” So, the job became for me to figure out what work these bodies were doing—what work these images were doing—and even if it was painful, I had a responsibility to try to get it right.
NHD: At times, Vénus Noire feels almost like it is as concerned with the production of Blackness as it is the production of whiteness in France. Here I’m thinking about the use of Sarah Baartmann, the Hottentot Venus, as a comedic device to circumscribe Blackness while simultaneously disciplining white colonial or white creole-born French citizens (67-68). Is the study of Black women uniquely suited to perform the critical work necessary to understand the production of Blackness and whiteness in France? Where else do we need to look as scholars of race and gender in Francophone culture? What more work needs to be done?
RM: I’m really happy that you noticed that this book is just as much about the production of whiteness as it is blackness, because you’re absolutely right. And I think when I started the book, what I wanted was to find these women speaking—that was really important to me—that their own voices be heard. And the further I got into the work, the more I realized I wasn’t going to find that in the way that I wanted to, because they often weren’t human to their audiences. I realized that these women, for many French men and women, were objects to behold, use, and then throw away. It is about the white gaze, it is about white anxieties. And so, part of my job was to look at the people looking, to find out why they were looking that way, how that was teaching them or training them in various forms of whiteness. That it was teaching them, “this is how white people behave, this is not how white people behave.” This is what it means to be French in specific historical moments.
My advisor, Tyler Stovall, used to ask me all the time, “tell me why this matters?” And one of the things I realized early in the study was that I kept saying, “I don’t know why it matters, but I know that it does.” It took me a really long time to understand that you don’t need large numbers of subjects for them to have a cultural impact on the spaces where they are. Number doesn’t equal importance. And black women had a rhetorical importance that far outweighed their numbers. So we have to look in many different places that we might find surprising in order to find notions of race and gender, for example. I remember the first time I read The Red and the Black, where Frédérique is looking at a woman that he is certain comes from the West Indies, and he’s enamored with her. I talk about it in the book very briefly. And then he goes to the Paris gardens and looks around, and he says, you know I looked for blackness in order to be reminded of this white Creole woman that I loved. And I thought, “what in the world is happening right now, and why isn’t this as much a topic of conversation when studying that book?” Looking at how this white male gaze upon female Blackness reminds him of female whiteness in a way. Why isn’t that part of the work that we do on this novel? And so, when you ask where else do we need to look for issues of race and gender in Francophone culture, we need to look everywhere. And we need to not get distracted by the fact that there may have only been a small percentage of people there, or that they only appear in specific places in order to say rhetorically these bodies are doing a great deal of cultural work. I wish we all were doing this work; it would have made European history more meaningful to me. But I also think that if we want to see what France really looks like in the 19th century, we have to be creative in different kinds of ways. And that’s so exciting!
I want to conclude by saying that for most writers, I think we work in such isolation, and you have no idea if what we’re doing is meaningful to anyone. I think for me, these women have always been meaningful, but I didn’t know if I could articulate it well enough to make it interesting for other people. And so, the fact that people are reading the book, and that they seem to like it is tremendously humbling for me. Not just personally—and personally it is important to me—but I look at the histories of women like Sarah Baartmann, or Ourika, or Jeanne Duval, and I look at the complexity of their lives: I looked at them with as much information as I could gather via the archives, and part of me feels like they left these bread crumbs for someone to follow. And the fact that I got to follow them, and that that journey led to more people hearing about them and knowing about their stories, is incredible for me. There are so many other black women—I don’t know if I want to say so many other women—but there are other black women scholars that have written about Sarah Baartmann, who’ve written about Ourika, who’ve written about Jeanne Duval before me. But I think what is different about this book is that I tried to put them in conversation with one another. Because I think if you don’t, you see sort of this moment flash and then it’s gone, and they’re more easily dismissible as a fad, and now it’s gone. But I think when you put them together, you see something else. You see this long trajectory in the 19th century of using black female bodies to tell the story about who France wants to be, and I think that’s a story worth telling.
I’m really grateful that other people also thought it was a story worth telling. I’m also grateful for the University of Georgia Press which really stuck with me on this book. It took a lot longer than any of us thought it was going to, for various reasons, but the press really believed in this project and I’m incredibly grateful to them.
Robin Mitchell is an Associate Professor of History at the California State University Channel Islands (CI). She received her master’s degree in Late Modern European History from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and her doctorate in Late Modern European History from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Her dissertation investigated the correlation between representations of black women in France and the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution. In addition to numerous published journal articles, Professor Mitchell’s first book, entitled VÉNUS NOIRE: Black Women & Colonial Fantasies in 19th-Century France was published with University of Georgia Press in January 2020.
Nathan H. Dize is a PhD candidate in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University. He is the content curator, translator, and co-editor of the digital history project A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. With Siobhan Meï, he coedits the “Haiti in Translation” interview series for H-Haiti. He has translated poetry and fiction by numerous Haitian authors, including Kettly Mars, Charles Moravia, James Noël, Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey, and Évelyne Trouillot. His translation of Makenzy Orcel’s The Immortals is forthcoming in November 2020 with SUNY Press.
Title Image: Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier (French, 1827-1905), Vénus Africaine, 1851.