“Rude” Performances: Theorizing Agency



Sometimes in the interests of critical liberatory agendas, power can be depicted as seamless and totalizing, resulting in a landscape peopled by the binary opposites of the empowered and the victims. In order to see more than the brutalizing effects of coercive systems that render the black body always as spectacle, it is necessary to theorize the elusive agency of Sarah Baartman, a difficult task given the invisibility of her thoughts and feelings within the traditional archive. To imaginatively approximate something close to her agency, I map the uneven discursive terrain that exists between a specific ethnographic spectacle, that of Sarah Baartman, derogatively known as the “Hottentot Venus” and slaves for sale. I stage the confrontation of two kinds of spectacles: that of the individualized ethnic African on display on stage for money with the display of stolen enslaved Africans carefully stripped of individuality for purposes of sale. I do so to offer a “more critically and historically embedded understanding of the freedom celebrated in literary and cultural histories of transatlantic abolitionism” (Wong 2009, 6). Too often the story of freedom is narrated as a finished event with slavery and freedom clearly demarcated from one another temporarily, geographically, and culturally.


Theorize Agency Black Body Historical Action Potential Buyer Extreme Violence 
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  1. 2.
    Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 70–71.Google Scholar

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© Natasha Gordon-Chipembere 2011

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