Thankfully, I’ve never been called a cunt, but I have been called a “ho.” The first time was in the sixth grade. I never liked to draw attention to myself and I was not very popular amongst the guys. However, I was an “early bloomer,” already three or four cup sizes larger than that of the average eleven-year-old. My hips were starting to spread and I had more cushion in the back, too.
I’ve heard plenty of other female classmates, mainly black girls, called hoes and I tried to ignore it then because their sexual histories had nothing to do with me. But when I was called one, I was gobsmacked and the boy who called me that did nothing but sneer at me. It’s an event that I chalked up as unimportant in a matter of “boys will be boys” or “children will be immature and stupid” sort of thing.
But that memory floated to the surface when I read the aforementioned lines of Toni Morrison’s 11th novel, God Help The Child. It’s a work that carefully assesses how memories affect our trajectories as adults and I had to do some serious introspection.
When I first entered college, one of my closest friends jokingly remarked that I have such a voluptuous body but I never show it off. My blouses barely showed my sternum and most of the times I wore tight stockings underneath my skirts to downplay my thick thighs. Although I didn’t think much of my stylistic choices, now, I’m beginning to wonder if subconsciously I was afraid of being called a ho as I did when I was a little girl.
Black girls don’t make the decision to be examined under sexual objectivity and desire, rather they are shoved in this hotbed of a spectacle. While women in general are subjected to cruelty and pejorative terms whether or not they were modest or provocative clothes, the scales are tipped even less favorably for black women.
Historically, white women were considered to be the pillar of innocence and modesty, so much in fact that black men were lynched for having sexual relations with them, or something as small as making eye contact. For black women, they were always seen as fair game for degradation and violation.
In Othello, Iago suspects that Othello has sex with Emilia and labels him as a “lusty moor”. Although in this play the stereotype is ascribed to a black man, white southerners used this to justify enslavement of African people. Black women were seen as “jezebels”, those who harbored an insatiable sexual desire, which slavemasters wielded to their advantage to rape them for they were seen as immoral and bestial entities.
Around this same time, in the early 1800s, Saartjie Baartman, better known as “Hottentot Venus”, was smuggled into England and put on display in front of Europeans whose myths about black women’s exotic and primitive nature were further intensified. At the Piccadilly in London, Baartman was placed in a cage and passersby ogled at her large posterior which many considered to be a deformity.
After that tour in England, Baartman was then transported to Paris where she was in a cage along with baby rhinoceros, wearing nothing more than tan loincloth at times and she was often asked to sit and stand like the rest of the animals. Death did not provide relief for her body for her brain and genitals were picked apart, placed into jars, and placed in display at the Musée del’Homme until the late twentieth century.
When I think about this Saartjie’s story in comparison to Bride’s in God Help The Child, I see two Black girls, one in her early twenty, and the other only six years old, who have felt the weight of sexual cruelty. Their bodies were never their own and in a instant, whether for financial gain or hunger for control through language, they were reduced to their sexual organs.
To this day, not much is known about Saartjie. We don’t know how she died at 26. We don’t know the exact date of her birth. Most of all, we have no idea how she felt when she was paraded and exploited in and around Europe.