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Black Women in Nineteenth-Century France: An Interview with Historian Robin Mitchell

In today’s post, blogger Annette Joseph-Gabriel interviews Robin Mitchell about her new book, Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France (University of Georgia Press, 2020). Dr. Mitchell is an Associate Professor of History at the California State University Channel Islands (CI). 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, with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @ParisNoire.

Annette Joseph-Gabriel: How did you come to these three women–Sarah Baartmann, Ourika, and Jeanne Duval, in your research on Blackness in the French imaginary?

Robin Mitchell: I actually began graduate school thinking I was going to be studying African American expatriate, Josephine Baker! I was fascinated by the marketing of her in France, and that she served as a “racial marker” for so many people who spoke of Black people in France. I read a terrible biography about her and in it, a French producer who was looking at her rehearsals said something to the effect that given French people’s fantasies about Black women, more nudity was required. That moment sealed my fate. I thought to myself, “what French fantasies?” So, I began moving backwards from Baker, looking earlier into the 20th and 19th centuries for other moments where a Black woman becomes part of the French landscape.

That eventually led me to Sarah Baartmann (also known as the Venus Hottentot). For me, she helped the obsession about Baker make sense. I started reading other 19th century historians and came upon Baartmann. Then, I did what most historians do: I looked through the archives looking for any Black woman I could find. And I found a lot of them! After that, I really couldn’t think about anyone else. She was the subject of my master’s thesis, and then my dissertation. That led me to Ourika–who was gifted as a house pet by the Governor of Senegal–and then to Jeanne Duval, the common-law wife of the white French writer Charles Baudelaire. The woman had been studied before, but not together in a way that would tell us something new about France.

Trying to find out details of the women’s actual lives was complicated. What I found in the archives were representations about them. So, I began there. I wanted to understand how they were being sometimes literally “fed” to white Frenchmen and women. It was only when I started working on my book, Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasies in Nineteenth-Century France that I saw how colonial fantasies and imaginations intertwined with a type of racial ventriloquism, and how useful white French people saw them when they talked about so many other things. So, while the women had been talked about before, there was a way to speak about them together that would tell us something new about France itself.

Read entire article at Black Perspectives