Black Venus: African Women in 19th Century France with Dr. Robin Mitchell
Gary Girod speaks with Dr. Robin Mitchell about her book Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France, about how three black women embodied and reflected France’s imperial anxieties in the 19th century.
Girod: Hello everyone. Today’s special episode is an interview with Dr. Robin Mitchell.
Robin Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of History at the California State University,
Channel Islands. She received her master’s degree in late modern European history from the
University of California, Santa Cruz and her doctorate in late modern European history from
the University of California, Berkeley. Her dissertation investigated the correlation between
representations of black women in France and the aftermath of the Haitian revolution. In this
interview we talk about her new book Venus Noire, Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in
19th century France. Venus Noire talks about three particular black women and their
experiences in 19th century France. Ourika, Sarah Baartman, and Jean Duvall. Ourika was a
young slave who became a pop culture icon. Sarah Baartman was a famous South African
woman who toured across Europe allowing Europeans to examine an African body in a circus
like atmosphere. Finally Jean Duvall was an actress and lover of Charles Baudelaire one of
the most acclaimed French poets of all time. Each of these women left behind an important
legacy which Dr Mitchell aims to uncover in her new work. Furthermore she argues that each
woman represented different anxieties experienced by France as it sought to understand and
at times control Africans. This became particularly important after the Haitian Revolution
during which black slaves with the help of some tropical diseases defeated the white French
forces and achieved their independence. Empire, prestige, French glory, and fear all come
together in the treatment of these black women. One final thing I want to note this was the
first digital interview I did. It is high quality in most parts though there are a couple small
scratches in it. Aside from the odd guest contributor the French History podcast has been a
one man show and I’ve had to write edit produce promote and host everything myself. So
thanks for being patient with me as I work out the technical stuff. Without further ado. Please
Girod: Thank you very much for being with me Professor Mitchell. I was very excited to
speak to you. You’ve been very active on Twitter sharing much needed perspectives on things
that I didn’t know too much about and I think this is one particular topic that perhaps not a lot
of people who are even interested in French history might know about which is black women
and France in the 19th century. Can you tell us how you got started studying this?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Actually I got started studying this because of my mother when I was a
child. It was an interesting upbringing for me. Didn’t get a lot of black history in my
elementary school and so my mother decided to start supplementing it. And so what she did
was she started reading Harlem Renaissance writers to us and every time she read a Harlem
Renaissance writer she said, “oh he went to France” or “she went to France.” And so from
about the time I was five years old my assumption was if you were black you were supposed
to go to France.
Girod: that’s really fascinating especially because, and I can’t believe I’m going to plug
another episode that we did. But I interviewed Taylor Morrow who, he did an episode on
black men serving in France in World War One and World War Two and how those
experiences of black men living in a desegregated society when they came back to the United
States, they wanted to change America. And so at least for that generation they had a special
connection to France. So I wonder if that was part of it.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Well, a lot of them didn’t even come back. A lot of them wrote letters to
friends and family and said, you know, send my toothbrush. If you look at Tyler Stovall book
he he goes in to this notion that there were black folks that were there during the war and
after it was over said there is absolutely no way I’m coming home. And so I always knew bits
and pieces about blacks in France. I remember telling an elementary school teacher that my
mom said there were black people in France and she said no there weren’t. I always believed
that my work comes from trying to prove my mother right. And it’s nice to say that I think I
Girod: Well on that note let’s get to your book itself. So your book deals with black women in
the 19th century France and you start off with a really fantastic story about how you met
Sarah Baartman. That is powerful for many reasons. One of which is that I think all native
French speakers struggled to do archival work in France. It’s intimidating. You don’t want to
sound stupid or embarrass yourself. I know that I had that experience, but your story is also
powerful because you talk about encountering in person what was once just an object of
scholarly study. Can you tell us about this experience.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: It was actually, I think, probably the most profound experience I’ve ever
had as a scholar. I think I became a scholar in that moment. And I think it’s because I told the
truth about it when I got to the [archives]. I didn’t have an appointment. I hadn’t written
ahead to say I was coming. I simply showed up and said you know there’s someone here I
want to see and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the security guard looking at me like I was, I had
lost my mind. And I remember standing there and I said you know you can’t move you can’t
move and you can’t talk. And finally he just picked up the phone and called upstairs and Philippe hadn’t gone to lunch yet. He was in charge of that area and came downstairs and I said you know I would like to see her. And to this day I tell this story to my students. I tell the story to other people and they think why were you not arrested. And to this moment I still don’t know why wasn’t. I just felt like this was what I was supposed to do and that’s what I did. And so, what was interesting for me is when I arrived I didn’t think anything was left. I was hoping to talk to somebody who had seen the body cast. I had hoped to sort of walk around the space and so I think I was wholly unprepared not to find out. There were still some things there.
Girod: And can you just for the clarification of our listeners. So what is the object you are
actually talking about?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: What I’m talking about is there’s a plaster body cast of Sarah Baartmann.
That has been taken off display. So it was crated up and in a room in the basement. And
so when I got there I said, you know, I’m hoping there’s some letters or I know that there were
paintings on, I knew about objects, but I didn’t know that the body cast was still there. And so
when I said is there anything I can see. Philippe said, “Well would you like to see the body
cast.” And I just I wasn’t prepared for it. And so I remember I think I said yes. But in
retrospect I wonder if I just shook my head. But he took me to the room and they brought
this enormous crate out and I remember thinking other folks have said that they tried to see
the body cast and they couldn’t. And so they brought this enormous crate out and they started
unscrewing it. And I had such a physical reaction to the fact that I was about see it, and I
looked around the room, I saw other plaster cast of heads, death masks, and I started getting
really hot and I thought this is, this is not good. And when they first finally pulled off the
door I just burst into tears. I was horrified at my own reaction. And Philippe, bless his heart
said you know this is absolutely normal that you would respond this way. And he was so kind
to me and I’ll never forget it and said Would you like a minute to sit with her and I said I
would. And I sat and I cried, I cried, and cried and cried and then I put my hand in her hand
Gary: yes, it definitely came across as a very moving moment in your writing which I think
also speaks to your ability to communicate in the written form as well. And I think it must
have been so striking that there was actually, that French people at this time were so
fascinated by the body of a black woman that they felt the need to take a cast of her. Now
granted one might say that Sarah Baartman wasn’t exactly the typical body but even still it
was very strange I’d imagine.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Well, to this day I still wonder, you know, Georges Cuvet a naturalist who had the cast made was so excited to see her body and was very discouraged that she wouldn’t let him. So, to this day I wonder if he embellished the cast. No he was, he is almost gleeful when he talks about you know finally she’s dead. I can I can look at her. And so I wondered to this day if he didn’t add a piece there or take a piece away there. And so while I’m, I’m grateful I got to see the cast and I’m grateful I got to see the closest facsimile of her I ever did. I wonder to this day if that’s actually what Sarah looked like.
Girod: Right. So, before we actually jump into the book itself. Historians traditionally have
been told to be neutral although, this practice is changing. What do you think is the proper
emotional connection one should after their subject matter.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Well one I don’t think any of us are neutral. I think we all bring ourselves
to our work. We’re all biased. I think what happens with historical work is often that certain
bodies are allowed to, for us to assume that they’re neutral and then others are not because I’m
a black woman looking at black women. I think there might be a notion that I can’t be
objective. I think the difference for me is that I was just open about it. That I knew that there
was going to be chatter and that I could do the work of a historian but that to pretend that I
was some neutral body was a lie. But I think it’s a lie for all of us.
Girod: Right. I think perhaps you do a service then by admitting your bias then because you
even go to lengths to emphasize with and connect with Sarah Baartman the person. So, on
that note your book revolves around three black women who were in France from the Ancien Régime and the Second Empire: Ourika, Sarah Baartman and Jean Duvall. Before
we go into each separate one could you in your own words describe who these three women
were and the France that each of them lived in.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: OK. Well with Ourika was brought to France around 1786 and you’re
going to hear me say a lots of times around or we’re not quite sure when because of the
bodies themselves these, women are often enslaved and so we don’t know that much about
them. Ourika arrives around 1786, or at least the early 1780s. She dies around 1799. She
was purchased as a type of house pet by the governor of Senegal and brought as a gift for his,
for some of his relatives. Sarah Baartman also known as the Hottentot Venus arrives in, is
born around 1770, she arrives in Europe around 1810. She’s shipped to France around 1814
and she’ll be dead by the end of 1815 beginning of 1816 and Jean Duvall, as far as we know
was born in France around 1820, she dies around the 1870s. So each of them see a very
different kind of France. Ourika grows up as a type of degraded aristocrat. And so she’s
seeing a very particular kind of France with a lot of money, a lot of prestige, and a lot of
attitudes about what will ultimately happen in the Haitian revolution. Sarah Baartman comes
to Paris when Paris is an occupied city and so she comes in, I believe to a France that is
deeply troubled not only by the loss of the Haitian revolution but have people on French soil
that they don’t think belong there. And in the case of Duvall, it’s interesting because we think
she was born in France. We think her father and her grandfather were white Frenchmen. And
so it’s difficult to say what kind of France she sees because it’s the France of her home, it’s
where she’s from. But it is a France coming to the end of its slave empire. And I think there’s
a lot of anxiety about that.
Girod: So, let’s start by talking about the Hottentot Venus, Sarah Baartman. Can you explain
that moniker and its paradoxical nature?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Sure. Hottentot is a pejorative. So, the idea of putting something like
Hottentot, she was South African. we believe she was Khoikhoi. And so putting that with
Venus is designed to be, amusing. If you look at play that Paris puts on about her. What you
have are a bunch of white Frenchmen women talking about her beauty, talking about that
she’s truly a Venus. And none of them have seen her and that’s sort of the point in the play. At
one point they see a picture of her and they all sort of recoil in horror. So it’s, it’s supposed to
be sort of a joke. She’s not beautiful, she’s not Venus, yet the attitude is in Africa. She would
have been considered that. And so putting those things together is supposed to be satiric for
the viewers because they look at her and are supposed to be horrified by her. I think what’s
interesting about the Hottentot Venus and I think what’s interesting about the representations
of her is how much they change. And for me what that says is when they put a representation
of her out there, they don’t always get the response that they’re hoping for. And so if you look
at multiple representations of Sarah Baartman she changes in all of them. She gets taller, she
gets fatter, she gets darker, she looks more masculine, and part of it is because I don’t think
the French can actually control how people are actually seeing her.
Girod: What’s really fascinating, I think is how she was represented to people not just in print
but also in person because she was displayed in a cage and people would go up and poke her.
Is that not the case?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: That’s what happened in England. I know in France she was on rue St. Honoré for a while. And there seems to be some discrepancy in how people got to view her. I think if you had money you could see her more privately. At one point there’s, I believe it’s a fake story about her being brought into a restaurant. Although I know that she was brought to the Palais Royale and people could look at her there. But you had to be of a certain standing to have access to her. I think for more working class folks, for more commoners, you could poke at her, you could see her in a more circus like setting. And so I think it really depended upon who you were as a white French person in terms of the access to her. And so I think that’s why the representations in journals and in newspapers were so important because they just kept reinventing her.
Girod: I think the story that you told of how Baartman was examined upon her death was
probably one of the most harrowing things that I’ve read. Again this is a compliment to your
exquisite writing. Can you tell us about what happened to her after her death and the quote
unquote autopsy that occurred?
Dr Robin Mitchell: You know it’s interesting because I wonder sometimes about her
treatment. And believe me I’m no fan of Georges Cuvier In her death at least she wouldn’t
have had to witness her own humiliation, which is what she got in life. Cuvier says things
like, I tried to offer her candy if she would let me look under her apron and she said no.
Gary Girod: And so specifically when you say her apron…
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Yes she had a covering over genitalia. And so he kept saying, you know,
he kept saying I want to see under it. And she wouldn’t let me. And what was wonderful to
me is the moment where I realized she said no to him and he accepted it. And so he was
almost gleeful I think when she died to be able to look at her body sort of without having her
in front of him saying no to him. The autopsy is difficult. You know, when I was in Paris the
last time I went to the Jardins des Plantes where Cuvier’s theater is and they use it now I
think for presentations and things and they said do you want to go in. And I said no I don’t. I
couldn’t do it because it seemed like such a place of such profound sadness and degradation
for her. I wanted to, as he put it, understand black female sexuality. And he thought by
looking at Baartman he could do that. And so as a result of him looking at her vulva and
looking at her breasts and looking at different parts of her body he thought he could in many
ways explain hyper black female sexuality. And that’s what he did.
Girod: So, do you see a difference in the treatment of Baartman after death than in life?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: That’s hard to say because again, she was, I think she was deeply
humiliated when she was live. There are lots of examples of her saying that she was cold or
that she wasn’t getting food that she needed. I think she was physically ill near the end of her
life. And I think she was self medicating with alcohol and so there was there some evidence
to suggest that she might have been an alcoholic as well near the end of her life. And so I
think what we see is a type of defilement by Cuvier and then for a long period of time she,
her body cast was removed from public view and then it was brought back. And I remember
hearing about the fact that people were using her body cast in ways that were deeply, deeply
inappropriate and then they removed it from view again and I hope it stays removed forever.
Girod: Sarah Baartman obviously had these experiences in a certain place at a certain time.
Can you tell us what it was about France that made them so obsessed with her, as a person
and just as a black woman? Because you connect this with France’s colonial empire and its
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Yes, and I think that’s why, I think one of the reasons that she’s
fascinating is because in many ways most white French men and women couldn’t go to the
colonies. And so the colonies come home for them in the form of Sarah Baartman. And so
this is about her body but it’s also about embodiment. And I think one of the other reasons
and this is the argument one of the arguments I make in the book, is that France has suffered a
trauma in losing the Haitian revolution and they don’t know what to do with that trauma. That
they have made arguments about their own military superiority, that they’ve made arguments
about their own racial superiority. And both of those things come into question when they
lose the Haitian revolution. And so what you get are people like Napoleon saying, well we
didn’t really want it anyway, you know, Haiti. It’s not that big a deal, when in fact it was a
huge deal. Also Sepinwall says the loss of Haiti was cataclysmic. And I agree with that. And
so, I think she represents a distraction in many ways, and a way to deal with that loss in a way
that might have appeared to be more safe in the beginning. And what I mean by that is, black
masculinity becomes very important when France loses the Haitian revolution. And so one of
the reasons that black women, I think, are important is because it’s a way of talking about
race and it’s a way of talking about gender using a body that appears to be safer. And by safer
I mean a black female body. The problem with that is that France has been doing things with
black female bodies in their colonies. And so once those bodies hit French soil I think they
don’t quite know how to deal with them. I think that’s the big difference. But I think she is
something unique and interesting to them. But I also think it’s a way of them working out
some of their drama.
Gary Girod: Definitely. So, now let’s move on to our second character, Ourika. Your chapter
on Ourika was particularly fascinating to me because I had no idea that French aristocrats
essentially bought young black slaves to use as pets and that even Marie Antoinette practiced
this. Can you flesh this out and give us a little more background for our listeners?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Well, what I love about France is its contradictions. If you look at
Sue Peabody’s work she talks about the legislation that goes into the 18th century to keep
blacks off French soil. At the same time, and this is what I find interesting, is that you’ve got
white French men and women who just simply don’t care that the law is telling them they
can’t bring these bodies. And so the idea is, if blacks are a sign of wealth and prestige for a lot
of white French men and women particularly the nobility until they have them around, they
dress them up, they put jewels on them, and it’s an it’s a sign of their own prosperity. The
problem for me, and the thing that was sort of fascinating to me is that having black bodies
around, because they not only had children around, they had pygmies. And so having these
black bodies around could lead to rumors. And so, I’m working on a case now where one of
the women that I’m studying, a French noble woman, has a child who they claim to be black
as the devil. And the way they joke about it is they say she must have really liked chocolate.
And so on the one hand you have blacks being presented as forms of wealth, at the same
time. I was interested in what happens when you have, perhaps a black male child with a
white French woman. What could that potentially lead to. And so the idea of having these
people around is, it makes you look good. The problem is when people are seeing these
bodies around and they start making comments about, wow, there are a lot of black people in
France. And so there start there starts to be commentary about while there are a lot of black
people in France when in fact they’re not. They just seem to be concentrated in these sort of
Girod: Yes, I believe in your book you said that, I think it was at the beginning of the 19th
century, there were an estimated three thousand black people in France.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Pierre Boule counts them. And I think he’s got a better figure. But
it’s incredibly low for me. When you think about the rhetoric attached to those bodies being
there. They seem to be talking about them as if they’re everywhere and they’re not.
Gary Girod: Absolutely. So, in the case of Ourika, she seems to not have a particularly
different life from many black slaves in France. However, after her death she profoundly
impacted French culture? Can you explain why?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Ourika has a really fascinating case. Because if you look at the letters
from her master and mistress she seems to have had a relatively noble upbringing. She got to
run around, she lived in a noble home. They taught her languages. She grows up to be a little
aristocrat. To the point where, I think people are worried about what to do with her because
they can’t marry her off to someone who would be appropriate for her, because once she’s
black they can’t marry her to someone who’s enslaved, but she’s had this somehow noble
upbringing at least for a while and so they can’t marry her off to sort of a white nobleman. I
think the reason that work, the actual work is so important is, she dies before questions about
what to do with her come up. And that’s what makes what I talk about in the book, I call it or
it can mania, several decades after she dies so interesting. Because it allows white Frenchmen
and women to wrestle with those issues about, is race inherent, is her inferiority inherent.
Then how do we deal with the fact that she speaks all these languages and she’s actually
noble in many kinds of ways. And so I think the way they deal with it is literally by eating
her, by being her, and by wearing her. And by that, I mean wearing, a type of blackness that
has much less ramifications than they’re actually dealing with a black body.
Girod: Right. And specifically when we talk about Ourika mania, she became something of
the Coca-Cola of France where you describe how practically any item that you could
purchase was associated with her. Can you go into that a little bit?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Yeah. After the duchess Dodura writes the novel about her. There’s,
everyone starts duplicating it. There are a number of poems that come out. There are a
number of terrible and they are terrible plays that come out about Ourika. And there are
Ourika bonnets, and there are colors, and we think that there was an Ourika biscuit. We also
think there was an Ourika ham. And so you could literally eat her, you could wear her. You
could become her. And it makes people really, really nervous. Particularly, when white
French women. Have to wear blackface to portray her on the stage. And so, commentaries in
the newspaper talk about how these white French women are ruining their natural beauty by
wearing blackface. So, there is this moment in time where I think it allows not only white
Frenchmen to sort of talk about her, and they do. They talk about her in the plays, they talk
about her in the poems in an overtly sexual manner, but it allows white French women to sort
of take on Ourika in a way that doesn’t cost them things ultimately. They can just simply take
off and Ourika on it when they’re done.
Girod: Right, to go back to the novel. So, there was a famous work on Ourika which, could
you essentially go into the ending and explain that to us?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Well the novel itself is a young, black woman who has entered a
nunnery, who’s telling her story to a medical doctor about her life as growing up in this
French noble home and falling in love with her adopted brother. And she goes through the
Haitian revolution. At the end she dies because she has to die. It’s it’s interesting to me with
my women, my colleagues say is she dead yet? And I always say no not yet, but she’ll be
dead soon because they didn’t die right. If they’re not sequestered they have to die because
their presence is the problem. You can talk about them, you can use their bodies, but at the
end of the day it only works if they die. If they die, if they don’t die you have a problem. And
I think when we talk about Jean Duvall, I can sort of return to this theme because the problem
with Jean Duvall is she lives her common law husband.
Gary Girod: So, I think that would be a perfect time to transition then and talk about Jean
Duvall. Why did the artistic community demonize her the way that they did?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Because she lives, and she lives longer than Baudelaire. I think with
Ourika, I think with Baartman, by the time white Frenchmen and women get their hands on
them, they can manipulate them any way they want to because they’re dead. Jean Duvall
appears to have been born in France and she is raised in France. She speaks French and she
doesn’t conveniently die in enough time for Baudelaire or his contemporaries to sort of mold
her. She keeps pushing back like she does when she’s alive. And so, I think that’s the
important distinction that by the time Ourika mania has happened, two decades have gone by
there’s nothing left of Ourika to sort of push back on. Baartman has died and Couvier has
taken her over. Duvall sort of looks at you and says, I’m standing right here. And I think that
Girod: Yeah. That was particularly fascinating especially because you mention how Duvall
met with so many great artists and even a famous photographer at the time. And yet there are
no surviving photos of her.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: No, and it was sort of devastating for me because I found an image that I
thought, this could actually be Duvall. And so I wrote the museum, Nadar’s Museum and said
you know is this, is this her? And they wrote back and said no, this isn’t her. And so it’s sort
of particularly devastating to me that I don’t have an image of her that exists outside of
Baudelaire’s drawings and all of these sort of impositions of who she was by his
contemporaries. And then by, honestly, by his biographers I I have a little bit more sympathy
for Baudelair’s contemporaries than I do for his biographers because the biographers are not
neutral in trying to manage her.
Girod: I think what is interesting when looking at the case of Baudelaire and Duvall is that
Baudelaire, he writes all of these, what are, what you could consider to be somewhere
between a love letter but then also crazed drunken 2am text where he talks about how she’s
overpowering, that she doesn’t love him enough, and it seems like her biographers or I should
say the biographers of Baudelaire when I mentioned her, essentially cast her as the trope of
the domineering black woman.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Yes, and I think that trope of the domineering black woman changes over
time. But I want to return it for a minute back to this notion that she somehow overpowered
Baudelaire and that seems to be sort of a long running argument and many of the writings
about Baudelaire and I don’t think she overpowered him at all. She had no money. She was
by all accounts not a very good actress. She only did it part time. She was most likely also a
sex worker or at least had multiple lovers. I don’t think he was overpowered by her at all. I
think if anything she was overpowered by him. He had resources, she didn’t. You know, it
was Baudelaire who told Jean, please take this letter in which I say I’m going to commit
suicide, you know, to my solicitor because Baudelaire couldn’t do it himself. It was it was Jean
Duvall that allowed Baudelaire to write the most ridiculous letters to his mother saying, you
know she did this and she did that and she’s being so mean to me. And she’s taking lovers and
all of those things for the time are absolutely appropriate for a part time actress. She would
have a lover who could actually financially help her. She would also have a lover that she
loved. And then she would have other lovers. So it’s not inappropriate for part time actress
during the bohemian human period to have lovers. The problem here is race. It is her race that
makes her different from all the other sort of French part time actresses doing the exact same
thing. And in this case then, that becomes, that she is dominated and overpowered Baudelaire
who is, you know, absolutely powerless in her grip. And it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. I think
they both were really complex people who gave as well as they got. I don’t, what I love about
Jean Duvall is that she’s not perfect. At one point I think she poisoned Baudelaire’s cat. He
also hit her in the head with a, you know, with an anvil. So, they were not perfect human
beings. And as someone who’s not quite a fan of Baudelaire, one of the things I had to
come to grips with is ,they were together for a very long time. They loved each, they
apparently loved each other or were dependent upon one another. And that has to be
Girod: I think it was Chris Rock who said, if you’ve never thought about killing someone
you’ve never been in love. Maybe they really were in love then.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Yes, I remember that. Well, one of Baudelaire’s last letters to his mother
when he was very very ill. It’s terribly poignant, where he he’s begging his mother to please
make sure that she’s taken care of. And he says, you know, I’ve loved her for a really long
time. And I remember at one point he says, she sold her things to make sure I had money.
And so, you know, every time he stole from her he also wanted to make sure at the end of her
life that she was somehow taking care of. And you know it’s a poignant letter.
Girod: And I think if we take his ridiculous letters to his mother, talking about Jean did this or
Jean did that, we have to also say at the end of his life when it seemed clear he was going to
die, his thoughts were with Jean.
Girod: So, you connect each of these three black women to a different point in France’s
history and to different anxieties. On the one hand there is Baartman and the anxiety over
losing their French colonies, particularly San Dominique, Haiti. Then there is the case of
Ourika and the idea that white women would act black. What do you think is the anxiety that
Duvall echoed and why was it necessary for white French people to demonize her?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: I think what Duvall does is she is alive at the end, the definitive end of
slavery for France. Slavery ends in 1848. She she’s alive for it. There are black bodies on
French soil. And I think the anxiety of that is very present. I will say, the loss of Haiti goes
through every one of these stories. Either, and I think it touches these women either directly
or indirectly. But they’re still talking about that loss. And so what was interesting to me about
these French anxieties is throughout all of the changes in France, from Republic to monarchy
to empire back to monarchy, back to Republic, one of the things that stays consistent is
slavery. And so, that to me is one of the commonalities here. It is in each case, they seem to
be, the French seem to be trying to deal with it in different kinds of ways. But that slavery
enslavement the colonies is consistent through out these three stories. And I think that that’s
Gary Girod: So your work is not just about blackness. It’s also about gender and
sexuality. Why do you think it is that so often cultures try to demean something by eroticizing
it? Why is it considered to be wrong or lesser when it is inherently sexual?
Dr. Robin Mitchell: That’s a good question. I think in the case of these women, white
Frenchmen have been misbehaving in their colonies for a long time. And increasingly what
we’re finding out is so we’re white French women. Is that they’re having sex with black folks
and they shouldn’t have been doing that. It was tacitly okay for white Frenchmen to have
these black lovers. But, the problem is is they don’t leave that in the colonies when they go
home. And so after the Haitian revolution there are a number of refugees that come back to
France proper. With a belief according to Darryl Meadows, that they be compensated for their
losses in France. And in many ways they’re not. And so, their anxiety about their loss of
property, their loss of prestige, starts turning in to starts moving in a racial direction and very
specific kinds of ways. And so the eroticizing of black women I think was already happening
in the black colonies. I think it’s different however trying to figure out what to do with that
once you get on French soil. Because French soil is not supposed to have slaves on it. And so
there is a way of sort of dealing with the eroticizing of the black female body and exoticizing
it that is supposed to bring some kind of distance for white Frenchmen. I think that’s why
someone like Cuvier becomes so important with Baartman is that he allows them to say, this
is a scientific case. This isn’t, you know, I’m not attracted to this body. I’m looking at it
scientifically. The problem with that is when you read these autopsy he is not able to sustain
that level of distance. He talks about her neck being pretty, and that her voice was pretty, and
you look at it and you go, what is he doing? And so, they’re trying to achieve this distance of
saying, this is sort of this erotic thing over here. But I don’t think they’re ultimately able to do
that. And I think it makes these women stories so interesting because it’s not just about these
women, it’s about the white people looking at these women, and really trying to negotiate
what it means to look at these bodies, and in some cases to be attracted to those bodies when
Girod: so your book deals with the erotization and exotization of black women between the
late 18th to 19th century. Do you see any parallels between your work and that of
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Absolutely. I end the book with Josephine Baker Josephine Baker was
going to be my object of study when I went to graduate school. I thought I was interested in
the fact that when I was in France and I told people I was studying black women they all said
Oh Josephine. And so I thought, What is this thing that sort of allows the focus on blackness
on Josephine Baker? And so I ended with Josephine because it is a continuing issue. There
was a club a couple of years ago in France called I think called La Femme Noir. I think it’s
closed now. But, the fact that you know they name a restaurant after the black woman in
some kind of way is quite fascinating. And so, I don’t think this is something that France has
come to grips with. I don’t think they’d come to grips with that in the 19th century so I
certainly don’t think they’ve come to grips with it in the 20th or the 21st century. And so I
think this, I hope that this resonates in terms of how race and gender function in a nation that
doesn’t want to look at race.
Girod: Yeah, it is really fascinating. And I think, going back to what you said about how there
are so many different France’s. I can’t help but think of how you have blatantly, if not, what’s
the word… if not outright discriminatory. Obviously having something like La femme Noir is
at the very least not tactful or sensitive but on the other hand did you see that Miss France
this year was from Guadeloupe and is of African descent. So, yeah, it seems like it’s such a
strange thing how now the most beautiful woman in France is considered to be a black
woman but then on the other hand you have this other side of France that can’t believe that
there are so many black people within France, particularly because of the refugee situation.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: Well you know I remember a few years ago they had another. Miss
France of African descent and there was quite a lot of drama about it. And so you know
picking these women I think matter. Absolutely it matters. But I also think it it sometimes, we
need to be careful that it’s not saying, see we’re OK because we have this black woman as a
beauty queen. I mean look at the United States, I think five or six of the top beauty queens in
America are now black women. Does that mean we don’t have a problem with race. No it
doesn’t. Does it mean some things have shifted. Absolutely. You know what’s fascinating to
me about France is these contradictions. I love these contradictions. I love France. You know
my intent has always been to try to see a France that a lot of people didn’t want to
acknowledge existed. It’s a complicated story. I wanted it to be complicated. I wanted to bring
in some nuances. But, France is a complicated nation. It will continue to be complicated.
They on the one hand talk about race not existing. And then they have problems with
immigration. I wish I had a great, you know, pithy phrase to say this is what Francis but I
can’t do that. What I wanted to do was show France that many people including some
historians didn’t acknowledge existed. And I think acknowledging that there were black
people on French soil, that people were trying to figure out a way to make sense of that.
Once we figured that out I hope we can get at least some, I think once we acknowledged that
blacks were on 19th century French soil then we can acknowledge they have always been
there and that they were there in the 20th century and that they remain in the 21st century.
Gary Girod: Well you know I think what you said that ‘France is a complex nation and will
always be so.’ I think that’s as pithy a statement as we’re going to get. So thank you very
much for this interview. It has been enlightening.
Dr. Robin Mitchell: My pleasure. Thank you for asking.
Gary Girod: As always donations keep the podcast going. So if you would like to make a one
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