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“A Kim Kardashian of another era returns in Suzan-Lori Park’s ‘Venus,'” – New York Times

On Tuesday, The New York Times received serious criticism for their choice to run an article about the play Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks, comparing the life of Saartjie Baartman, a 19th century enslaved woman known for her exaggerated body features to that of Kim Kardashian. The play opened on May 15th at the Signature Theatre, and stars Obie Award winner Zainab Jah (Eclipsed) as Baartman, chronicling her life journey on the London Freak Show circuit.

 

Zainab Jah in Venus | Image: Joan Marcus

In a review written by Ben Brantley, he drew several comparisons between Baartman and Kim K. stating “Attention, please, those of you whose greatest ambition is to acquire the traffic-stopping body of Kim Kardashian, there is a less drastic alternative to costly and dangerous buttocks implants.” However, this delusional comparison between the very privileged, wealthy life of Kim K to that of Baartman, who lived in inhumane conditions and died in poverty, speaks volumes to need for black critics in a very oversaturated white theater world.

 

Kim Kardashian has grown up living a life comparable to “lifestyles of the rich and famous”, nothing of which Baartman ever experienced.  Kim has played up her body features as part of her imaging and branding, making it a profitable part of her career.  Baartman, also known as the “Hottentot Venus”,  was forced to travel as a part of a European freak show, where her body was ridiculed by onlookers.

According to South African History online, her owner “began exhibiting her in a cage alongside a baby rhinoceros. Her “trainer” would order her to sit or stand in a similar way that circus animals are ordered. At times Baartman was displayed almost completely naked, wearing little more than a tan loincloth, and she was only allowed that due to her insistence that she cover what was culturally sacred.  Baartman died in poverty at the age of 26 in 1816.  Her body was then dissected and placed on display at the Musée de l’Homme until 1974.  Baartman’s life

Twitter erupted immediately following the article, with several speaking to the very problem that occurs when you have white critics that lack historical context, critiquing black narratives.

Rebecca Theodore, a black film critic, tweeted to the issue of surface level reporting and the need for Black women critics.

The New York Times has since deleted the tweet and issued an apology for the poor “headline” but not the article itself.  Unfortunately, this will continue to happen unless “The Great White Way” opens it’s doors to some people of color reviewing that which they know best.  The hiring of critics, writers, editors who are people of color could be the first step in ensuring that this problem occurs with less frequency.

Across the board, media has an issue with the amount of black and brown people on staff doing the work on black and brown topics.  This same problem often occurs when white editors, writers, and critics are asked to review cultures outside of their own.  Their lack of first-hand knowledge often lends to the problem of assessing bodies of work through a white gaze, rather than the population that is most impacted by the work.  The continued comparison of Baartman to Kim Kardashian shows a refusal of white writers to comprehend the black experience. When black centered movies, stories, and experiences are created Black and Brown writers are necessary to give proper critique of the shared narrative and experience from the lens of first person.  However, this story speaks to another problem that occurs when you don’t use google to research what has been spoken on the topic already.

As simple as this sounds, there is no reason that google was not used prior to making the decision to run this piece.  Anyone who is writing a piece should do at the bare minimum research into the topic they are discussing to inquire if it had been written about before.  Had the New York Times simply googled the words “Kim Kardashian Saartjie Baartman”, they would’ve realized that this controversy had already been discussed in full length almost 3 years ago when the same horrible comparison was made.  The disregard for research around the play Venus shows the gross nature in which plays centered in blackness are reviewed and the effort one puts into getting that correct.

Going forward, things like this will continue to happen unless media publications and outlets realize the importance of having employees that are reflective of the stories and events they are going to be covering.  The New York Times apology follows a long history of retractions and misstatements made by publications who continue to operate using a white lens.  If they are going to continue to use white writers to discuss black narratives, I urge you to save yourself sometime a leave it to those who know best.

*Saartjie Baartman is often referred to as “Sarah” Baartman to make her name more pronounceable*

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