I chose to teach Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus” (VSV) this semester as a way of adding context to our analyses of representations of black women in Western art and literature, thereby subtly introducing techniques of interdisciplinary scholarship to a group of potential English Literature majors. I drew partial inspiration from Candice Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus, which lists Robin Coste Lewis’s award-winning book of poetry as required reading. While I initially considered incorporating Beyoncé’s music and videos into my Introduction to Literary Analysis syllabus, I believe that focusing on the literary output of contemporary black women writers goes a long way towards complicating students’ understanding of black art and creativity. I trust that most undergraduate students have already been exposed to Beyoncé, but I can’t take for granted that they will read “Voyage of the Sable Venus” or other challenging works of poetry by African American women. By equipping my students with cultural context and tools of literary analysis which help them to probe VSV, I hope that they will eventually be able to see beneath the surface of videos like Lemonade. I love Beyoncé, but I’m not sure that she needs my help. Don’t tell the Beygency.
Critical readings like “Venus and the Hottentot,” in Janell Hobson’s Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Popular Culture (2005) and the introduction to Deborah Willis’s Black Venus 2010: They Called Her “Hottentot” (2010) formed the bedrock of our class discussions. Both texts respond to similar debates and bodies of scholarship surrounding Sarah Baartman. They also helped us to grasp why Sarah Baartman remains an important icon for contemporary black women artists and what it might mean for black women artists to reclaim a sense of agency via bodily representation. My students are acutely aware of the importance of using people’s preferred gender pronouns. Thus, they were particularly interested in the fraught implications of using the name “Sarah Baartman” or terms like “Venus Hottentot”. Working in a wired classroom allowed us to view Thomas Stothard’s Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies (1801) and other key visual references at will.
Next, we read Elizabeth Alexander’s “The Venus Hottentot” and viewed a video of Elizabeth Alexander reading the poem. In our discussion of ”The Venus Hottentot” we teased out the implications of including Georges Cuvier’s voice in the poem, and what it might mean for Sarah Baartman to speak back to history, or to fill in the blanks left by enlightenment discourse and scientific inquiry. We divided the poem according to a collective sense of temporal shifts and themes. Students were tasked with analyzing individual segments and presenting their observations about those segments to the class. Because my class includes a student from the UK, our discussions about the differences in race and representation on the popular stage in the UK and France became particularly nuanced. I was especially grateful for her perspective on Elizabeth Alexander’s poem.
The next week, we tackled VSV. We discussed the artist’s critical intent, as described in the prologue to VSV. It’s a provocative and ambitious project, and I wanted students to understand the scale of Robin Coste Lewis’s undertaking. I also spoke to them about my own experiences looking for traces of black performance in the archives. Afterward, I assigned each student a “Catalog” and asked them to develop discussion questions to help guide our conversations around the work. This assignment is purposely open-ended. I want students to understand that the tools of literary analysis that they have used to successfully analyze more canonical work in previous classroom settings are also useful when confronting literature that (quite purposefully) defies categorization. The resulting discussion questions were insightful and generative. I want them to take that confidence with them as we move forward this semester.
On the last day of our VSV discussion, we were immensely privileged to be able to view Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (2005) up close in the vault of Grinnell College’s Faulconer Gallery. Elizabeth Alexander’s allusions to Johann Caspar Lavater’s silhouettes and Robin Coste Lewis’s overt reference to Kara Walker’s Gone, An Historical Romance of the Civil War as It Occurred (1994) made this work an apt choice for our discussion. In fact, one of my students has chosen to write about Kara Walker’s silhouettes for her final project and has connected with the college’s gallerists.
I feel good about the work that we did during this unit. I would happily teach this constellation of texts again. Nevertheless, there are changes I would like to make. Fordham University’s English Connect has a marvelous website which lists several VSV teaching resources. I’d like to incorporate more secondary material relating directly to Robin Coste Lewis’s work into my lesson plans. Getting a sense of the ways contemporary critics understand the impact of Lewis’s work would be helpful to students as they form their own impressions. Students would also develop a better understanding of what contemporary literary criticism looks and sounds like. This semester, I’ve moved away from discussing the nuts and bolts of prosody in the classroom. But I still want my students to develop the skills that will allow them to contribute to scholarly discourse. Essays like these can help them to break free of their old five-paragraph essay habits in ways that typical scholarly prose cannot.
I’ve also wondered whether Suzan Lori Parks’s Venus (1990) would be a suitable addition to this unit. I admire Suzan Lori Park’s work, but I was ambivalent about the play when I finally saw it performed at the Public Theatre last spring. In fact, I was quite uncomfortable. And yet, I’m also sure that that discomfort and ambivalence is the point. The “character” of Saartjie Baartman is deeply problematic. She always was. Nevertheless, I’m concerned that the play’s brutal treatment of sexual exploitation, voyeurism and spectacle might be too difficult to tackle in an intro English Lit class. As the instructor, I have taken deliberate steps to incorporate a range of work by African American writers into our intro to literary analysis syllabus, knowing that my students may not have encountered such work before. I want to create balance by introducing them to literature that pushes them outside of their boundaries and which they feel comfortable discussing with me/ in a group setting. This semester, I am the only WOC in my classroom, but that is certainly not always the case, even at my current institution. I never want to create an environment in which students feel further alienated and marginalized. It’s tough, necessary work. I’m aware that the stakes are high. With Venus, I may have found my limits.
Comments by Kristin Moriah