Vénus Noire
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Vénus Noire

Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France

Title Details

Pages: 208

Illustrations: 25 b&w images

Trim size: 6.000in x 9.000in



Pub Date: 01/01/2020

ISBN: 9-780-8203-5432-3

List Price: $104.95


Pub Date: 01/01/2020

ISBN: 9-780-8203-5431-6

List Price: $36.95

Vénus Noire

Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France

The black female body as a site of cultural meaning

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  • Description
  • Reviews

Even though there were relatively few people of color in postrevolutionary France, images of and discussions about black women in particular appeared repeatedly in a variety of French cultural sectors and social milieus. In Vénus Noire, Robin Mitchell shows how these literary and visual depictions of black women helped to shape the country’s postrevolutionary national identity, particularly in response to the trauma of the French defeat in the Haitian Revolution.

Vénus Noire explores the ramifications of this defeat in examining visual and literary representations of three black women who achieved fame in the years that followed. Sarah Baartmann, popularly known as the Hottentot Venus, represented distorted memories of Haiti in the French imagination, and Mitchell shows how her display, treatment, and representation embodied residual anger harbored by the French. Ourika, a young Senegalese girl brought to live in France by the Maréchal Prince de Beauvau, inspired plays, poems, and clothing and jewelry fads, and Mitchell examines how the French appropriated black female identity through these representations while at the same time perpetuating stereotypes of the hypersexual black woman.

Finally, Mitchell shows how demonization of Jeanne Duval, longtime lover of the poet Charles Baudelaire, expressed France’s need to rid itself of black bodies even as images and discourses about these bodies proliferated. The stories of these women, carefully contextualized by Mitchell and put into dialogue with one another, reveal a blind spot about race in French national identity that persists in the postcolonial present.

Based on extensive research in primary sources, nus Noire is a groundbreaking study of how, despite their relatively few numbers in metropolitan France, black women were weighted with powerful symbolic valence. French writers, scientists, and artists all depicted black women as sexualized, mysterious, and uncontrollable "others," thus burdening actual black women with living their lives in tension with these stereotypes. Mitchell brings to life the biographies of three particularly well-documented black women, while deconstructing artistic and literary icons of many more, to show how French discourse produced race and gender from the Revolution and Napoleonic era through the Second Empire. Haunting, breathtaking, and riveting, this book will linger in your mind long after you close its pages.

—Sue Peabody, author of Madeleine’s Children: Family, Freedom, Secrets, and Lies in France’s Indian Ocean Colonies

Mitchell’s research is rigorous and presented in a riveting way. Indeed, Vénus Noire is essential reading for any historian of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, as well as history enthusiasts.

—The Society for the History of Collecting

Vénus Noire, apart from breaking this reader’s heart, attests to the ongoing significance of the relational, intersectional approach in the study of European empire.

—Gloria Wekker, New West Indian Guide

By demonstrating the points of intersection and parallel between these Black women’s stories, Mitchell illuminates the ongoing contentiousness that undergirded France’s relationship to Black subjectivity and Black sexuality in an era marked and striated by slavery and its abolition.

—H. Adlai Murdoch, H-Net France Forum

The book is a triumph not only because it shows how narratives around black women’s bodies have evolved, but because Mitchell unashamedly makes the personal political.

—Kate Lister, The Guardian

In this attractively written, handsomely illustrated volume, historian Robin Mitchell discusses the lives and representations of three Black women in nineteenth-century France in the context of the devastating loss of France’s most profitable colony at the time: Saint-Domingue.... In exemplary intersectional fashion, the study brings issues of race, gender, and sexuality to the fore, with regard to both the book’s three protagonists and the French metropolitan population.

—Gloria Wekker, New West Indian Guide

A much-needed tour de force. . . . Mitchell offers an insightful analysis of black women’s bodies as framing the discourse around national identity in post-revolutionary France.

—Ashwiny O. Kistnareddy, Immigrants & Minorities: Historical Studies in Ethnicity, Migration and Diaspora

A timely and historically grounded Black feminist contribution to the study of race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial period....Essential reading for any scholar of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, Vénus Noire is an exciting contribution to the field of French studies.

—Sage Goellner, Oxford University Press French Studies Journal

Ambitious, thought provoking, and engaging.

—Carolyn J. Eichner, American Historical Review

Having taught this book in an advanced undergraduate seminar on the history of modern France, I can attest that Vénus Noire yielded rich discussions about the overlooked construction of whiteness as part of French national identity in the nineteenth century, and prompted students to reassess the salience of race in shaping what we know about this time period, even inspiring some to further pursue this topic in their own research. The book would also be a perfect addition to a course that touches upon imperial history, race, or gender and sexuality. It is, in sum, a welcome and much-needed addition to the limited body of scholarship on Black populations, and especially women, in France in the nineteenth century.

—Caroline Séquin, Journal of Modern History

About the Author/Editor

ROBIN MITCHELL is the College of Arts and Sciences Endowed Professor and an associate professor in the History Department (with an affiliation with the Department of Africana & American Studies) at the University of Buffalo.