Let's talk Elizabeth Alexander's take on the Venus Hottentot. When I read this years ago, I was struck by the sorrow and the sadness of the tale. But lately, I've been taken by this:
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak
English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names
If he were to let me rise up
from this table, I'd spirit
his knives and cut out his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man's museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural
I don't know how, but in my early readings of this piece, I missed perhaps the most important emotion--a kind of slow-burning rage. There are many ways to read those two quotes. But I'm black and Ta-Nehisi and what I see is the irony of science, how disciplines founded to better understand the world so often obscure the world.
I've talked about this a lot here, about how, to social science, black seems to mean the bottom of the statistical barrell. Well yeah it does, but science can't tell us what else it means (how it feels for instance) and when employed without humility, it blinds us. So Cuvier doesn't know that this woman can speak all kinds of other languages, and not just other languages but languages that he's never heard of. And in that, there are many layers, because language is a short-hand for ways of seeing the world. The speaker in the poem has seen the world from many perspectives. As is often the case with people on the bottom, she knows more of his world than he knows of hers.
And then the violent end, the sense that she isn't the freak, but that this dude who is obsessed with this woman's genitals, these well dressed "civilized" people who oggle at her ass, are really the ones who belong on display. That their "geometric, deformed, unnatural" hearts are really what's truly freakish. But because they are priviliged, their own human foibles, their own insanities can be hidden, while hers are paraded out for show.
Deep. Anyway, what does the room think?