Monday, October 08, 2007


Pius Adesanmi questions the omission of African feminists scholars
from the Norton Anthology and challenges the editors as to why “an
entire continent is seen to have produced nothing of feminist
theorizing “I am interested in the conscious and the subconscious
processes that led you to the conclusion that Africa, an entire
continent of fifty-four countries and over a billion people, has
contributed nothing, absolutely nothing, to five centuries of
feminist theorizing. After all, as seasoned academics in the United
States, you both know that exclusions tell much louder stories than

Dear Sandra and Susan, I salute you both in the name of feminism,
women's liberation, gender equality, and, most importantly, global
sisterhood. The publication of your much-anticipated Feminist
Literary Theory and Criticism: A Norton Reader is such an epochal
event that I must interrupt the blissful and well-deserved eternal
sleep that was eventually accorded me when the people and government
of France, ever so fatherly and motherly when it comes to taking care
of poor Africa, graciously returned my brain and backside to the
South African government for burial in my ancestral homeland a few
years ago. I join the American and the global feminist family in
congratulating the two of you on the publication of this truly
wonderful volume. It is obvious that feminist intellectual labor will
never ever be the same again. Resounding success, I must say, has
become synonymous with the long history of intellectual collaboration
between the two of you. Afterall, The Mad Woman in the Attic, the
first gift of your collaborative efforts to humanity, has remained
the only inevitable, unavoidable bible of feminist scholarship ever
since it was published.

The reference to the magnanimity of France in returning my remains to
the government and people of South Africa should have given my
identity away by now. However, it is always safe and wise to swear by
the natural invisibility of Africa and Africans in matters of global
import. And in your immediate context in the United States, it is
outright foolish to assume that anybody considers anything about
Africa worth knowing. Except, of course, hunger, starvation, poverty,
wars, AIDS, famine, and Western charity or "giving" (apologies to
President Bill Clinton). I must therefore assume complete ignorance
of my identity and introduce myself. I hope you will find it in your
hearts to pardon my presumptuousness if you are both already familiar
with my story.

My name is Sarah Baartman, also famously known internationally as
"the Hottentot Venus". I will spare you the sassy details of my story
and focus only on the essential. I was lured to London in 1810 where
I soon became a prisoner of Europe's rapacious and capitalistic
voyeurism. I'm sure I don't have to tell you the story of 19 th
century Europe and its treatment of its Others in Africa and other
places. No doubt, you still remember your Orientalism - Edward Said
has been a very good friend since he got here. The Europe of this
period was also a formidable theatre of all kinds of exhibitions.

Zoophilism was in the air. The colored Other needed to be displayed
publicly and regularly in London, Paris, and Lisbon as colonial fauna.
As fate always manages to arrange these things, I was what Europeans
called – and still call- an "African tribeswoman" gifted with an
exceptional backside. Europe's science promptly concluded that my
buttocks suffered from a biological deformity known as steatopygia.

The lips of my womanhood were also considered to be too huge and
elongated for the civilized global standards determined by the labia
of white women. And so from Britain to France my backside and the
lips of my womanhood became objects of visual consumption in the
public spheres of White patriarchy. For an extra fee, White men could
even touch my behind while I was on display.

Death eventually came calling. You must know that where I come from
in Africa, death is no finality. I merely transitioned to ancestor
hood in the worldview of my people, hence the reverence with which
Africans treat the dead. Not so Europeans. They took their knives and
carving objects, carved out my brain, the lips of my womanhood, and
my backside, put them in bottles, and kept them in public display at
the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. Yes, I can see you cringe. You should.
All sensitive feminists should. The idea, just the idea! The bitter
tragedy of a woman's most vital parts captured by men, carved out of
her dead body by men, and stored in the Museum of Man! Of all places!

My parts remained in public view in that museum, ultimate evidence of
patriarchy's victory over feminism, until 1974 when they were
withdrawn into a private sanctuary. Finally in 2002, France returned
her precious conquest to the people of South Africa.

Dear sisters, the significance of my story to the feminist cause and
to global feminist intellectual labor should be quite obvious by now.
For nearly two centuries, I was an international feminist cause
célèbre, the very embodiment of patriarchal control over African
female sexuality, black female sexuality, and, I daresay, female
sexuality. Let me be clear: the story of my body in the international
economy of meaning is the story of your own bodies, the story of
every woman's body. The difference lies merely in the detail or what
your postmodernist colleagues would call local particularities.

Given the fact that my narrative has become one of the most
formidable sites – I hate it when I sound like you academics! – of
global feminist contestation and intellection, it stands to reason
that any reasonable person would expect me to make a grand,
celebrated entrance into your Norton volume through the work of any
of the numerous African feminist scholars of international repute who
have written about me. At the risk of sounding immodest, nobody would
expect to pick up a summation of five centuries of feminist
intellectual labor – which your Norton anthology represents - and
draw a blank with regard to the story of Sarah Baartman. After all,
I've been theorized, postcolonized, and postmodernized in all the
faddish versions of feminisms out there. I didn't think it was
possible for me to be disappeared in any serious historiographical
account of feminist theory. I didn't expect to be Ralph Ellisoned.

Trust me my dear sisters, I was not motivated to write you by any
narcissistic self-indulgence. You will admit, from what you now know
of my story, that I am quite used to being silenced, being
disappeared. I am actually more worried by the broader, deeper
ideological implications of your having disappeared me softly from
your Norton volume. I am interested in the stories told – or untold –
by your editorial choices and options, the instinct to include and
the impulse to exclude. I am interested in the conscious and the
subconscious processes that led you to the conclusion that Africa, an
entire continent of fifty-four countries and over a billion people,
has contributed nothing, absolutely nothing, to five centuries of
feminist theorizing. After all, as seasoned academics in the United
States, you both know that exclusions tell much louder stories than
inclusions. I know we are on the same page here.

Some people may praise you for making this volume truly global and
representative by including the multi-layered voices of the Other.
They would be right if they did that. After all, you included essays
by bell hooks, Hortense Spillers, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and
Audre Lorde, evidence of your awareness of Africana feminist voices
and practices; you included essays by Gayatri Spivak and Chandra
Mohanty, evidence of your awareness of the expansive field of Third
World/postcolonial/transnational feminist voices and practices; the
entry by Paula Gunn Allen saved the day for Native American
feminisms; Gloria Anzaldua – another good friend of mine here –
thankfully guarantees the presence of Chicana feminisms in your
volume. In essence, the presence of these Other voices, strategically
sprinkled in the text, is a laudable proof of the fact that you paid
attention when Hazel Carby screamed in an article: "White Woman
Listen"! You listened. You agreed with her that feminism could and
should no longer be the gospel of the White western female according
to Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett,
Judith Butler, Diana Fuss, Elaine Showalter and others too numerous
to mention. You agreed with Carby that the narratives of the French
delegation – Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous,
Monique Wittig, and Julia Kristeva – should no longer be deemed
universal. You agreed that Chinese women are probably better
positioned to speak for and about themselves than be represented and
spoken for by Julia Kristeva's About Chinese Women.

It is your awareness of these things that makes your excision of
African feminist theories and theorists from your volume all the more
alarming. Could it be that you imagined that the voices of the
African American women you selected adequately speaks for those of
their continental sisters? Possibly. If this is the case, I must tell
you that African American women cannot be made to stand in and speak
for continental African women. According to an African proverb, the
monkey and the gorilla may claim oneness, monkey is monkey and
gorilla gorilla. Perhaps you imagined that African women would be
better served to find some space inside the Third World/postcolonial/
transnational feminist umbrella you represented with the voices of
Gayatri Spivak and Chandra Mohanty? Possibly. Could it be that you
are simply unaware of the considerable body of African feminist
intellection, right there in your back of the wood in the US academy?
Possibly. Could it be that you just simply elected to disappear them
like you disappeared me? Possibly.

I'm sure you know that Bill O'Reilly, the famous rightwing
fundamentalist talkative on Fox News – has only just discovered in
2007 that African Americans are capable of eating properly with fork
and knife, you know, like real, normal people. Now, I don't want you
to travel that path. I don't want you to discover, in 2007, that
continental African women have been theorizing feminism for a very
long time in US academe and have produced a considerable body of
work, one or two of which should deservedly have passed through the
eye of Norton's needle. Since you included work by Alice Walker, I
take it that you both know how well her theory of "womanism" has
traveled in US and global women studies programs and departments.
Trouble is, in 1985, before Walker used the term, Chikwenye Okonjo
Ogunyemi, a US-based Nigerian feminist scholar, had published an
essay in Signs entitled: "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary
Black Female Novel in English". Now, Signs is not a journal the two
of you could have missed. It's the most prestigious peer reviewed
journal of feminist studies in the United States. But let's assume
you somehow missed it, Ogunyemi subsequently published a very
important book, African Wo/Man Palava, with the University of Chicago
press in 1996.

Did you also miss that? We're talking U of Chicago Press for God's sake!

There is also Obioma Nnaemeka, a formidable feminist theorist based
in Indiana University. Her reputation is global. Secure. Frankly
speaking, her essay, "Feminism, Rebellious Women, and Cultural
Boundaries" has no business not making your Norton Reader. There is
of course her formidable work on female circumcision in Africa. By
the way, isn't female circumcision in Africa – genital mutilation in
Western parlance – supposed to be a subject of sensational
predilection for western feminists and NGOs? If not a single excerpt
from Obioma Nnaemeka's edited volume, Female Circumcision and the
Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses, made
it into your volume, don't you think that something is awfully wrong?

There is also Oyeronke Oyewumi, an important US-based feminist
theorist. The University of Minnesota Press published her book, The
Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender
Discourses, to critical acclaim in 1997. Not even a chapter in this
book is worthy of inclusion? There is also Ifi Amadiume. She teaches
at Dartmouth. Her Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender in an
African Society is a priceless classic. Did you also miss that? There
are Molara Ogundipe and Nkiru Nzegwu. How about the Egyptian, Nawal
El Saadawi and the Algerian, Assia Djebar? These two global figures
of women's writing and feminist intellectual labor have written
nothing that could have made the cut and rescued an entire continent?
You will notice that I have refrained from mentioning any of the
numerous important feminist thinkers based in Africa. I do not want
to bore you. It is also better to cite those whose alterity in US
academe one would have believed you couldn't conceivably have missed.

I read sadly in your preface that "our own conversations about the
construction of this book has been enhanced by many colleagues and
friends who have shared syllabi with us, discussed their teaching
practices, and made suggestions about possible inclusions". A long
list of names follows and this is where the sadness lies: that not
once in all these conversations with this expansive cast of
consultants did my story and the story of Africa's contribution to
feminist theorizing crop up. Not one person, not one colleague across
the feminist studies landscape in the US pointed out this ominous
oversight – if indeed it was an oversight – to you? Obioma Nnaemeka
is Susan Gubar's neighbor in Indiana for Christ's sake!

There is some good news though. There won't be a shortage of happy
African intellectuals who will query the wisdom of even expecting
Africa to have been included in your work in the first place. Why do
we always whine and complain when Westerners ignore us, they will say?

It is not their responsibility to include us. We should include
ourselves by creating our own structures, period! After all, Oyeronke
Oyewumi, as if anticipating what would happen with your Norton
project, had edited African Gender Studies: A Reader in 2005. Such
opinions would of course ignore the simple fact that your work has a
universalizing underpinning in terms of its historical breadth and
its thematic scope and Africa has been excluded from this picture.
They would ignore the fact that this is Norton and who says Norton
says canons! They would ignore the fact that even if we were to adopt
the reductionist approach that all you have done here is to reflect
the multiple voices that have inflected feminist, gender, and women
studies in the American academy over the years, the end product
conveys the fallacious message that no African woman has been part of
this process.

I know you are already wondering how an African woman, who died so
many years ago with no evidence of having attended any University,
happens to be so familiar with academic language and procedure. You
should know the answer to that: I'm now an ancestor, a spirit. I'm
not human. I'm supposed to know everything. That is what sanctions my
intervention in the affairs of you mortals!

Peace and love, Sarah Baartman

**Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: A Norton Reader (Paperback)
by Sandra M. Gilbert (Author), Susan Gubar (Editor)

* Pius Adesanmi is Associate Professor of English and Director, Project on New African Literatures ( at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Apart from his academic work, Dr. Adesanmi publishes opinion articles regularly in various internet fora. He runs a regular blog for The Zeleza Post ( and has contributed to Counterpunch, Slepton and Chimurenga online. Tel: (613)520 2600, ext. 1175


CATWALQ a.k.a LAGBA-JESS 4:32 pm  

wow, I am going to print that ok?

CATWALQ a.k.a LAGBA-JESS 5:19 pm  

thanks for the birthday wishes...

Idemili 9:03 am  

LOL@ 'I did not expect to be Ralph Ellisoned.'

Anonymous,  9:51 pm  

uh..just got ralph ellison reference- with that sudden clarity one gets after the second glass of vin blanc. Stillnes in my hear, quietness in my brain- this comment not post worthy..just an observation. i mean, who f'ing cares?

Blue 11:34 am  

Hear! Hear! I hope they got to read it though.

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