Dignity is something we are not truly aware of until it has been taken from us, whether that be through humiliation or loss of control. Taking away another person’s dignity is a form of empowerment; this is how the social hierarchy has remained intact throughout history. The power that is gained from stolen dignity also gives you control over the story that is told, which is how voices like Sara Baartman’s and thousands of other Black Venuses have been silenced. This relates to Adichie’s “The Dangers of the Single Story,” and is why human dignity is something that must be protected for all people. One question I had when writing these thoughts was, is human dignity a right? Should it be?
Sara Baartman is one historical example of the dangers of using other humans for entertainment, but I also considered contemporary examples when reading the text about human zoos. Specifically, I thought about the movie The Greatest Showman and the circus. Barnum’s success came from putting social “oddities” on display for public entertainment. While he promises them great wealth and fame, they truly just end up suffering from humiliation and having their dignity taken away from them. Looking back, is that really so different from the concept of human zoos and what was happening in London and Paris in the early eighteen hundreds?
The text talks about this innate curiosity we have for those who are “different” from us, but that doesn’t give us the right to take away dignity from other human beings in order to satisfy our curiosity. This is a lesson that we must learn from Sara Baartman’s story. I was deeply disturbed at the great lengths that the French scientists were willing to go in order to satisfy their curiosity about her body. The scenes where they attempted to force Sara to reveal her body to them were among the most horrifying in the movie because it was so apparent how they completely disregarded her as a human being. Instead, they simply saw her as a scientific object, which dehumanized her. Additionally, their position as European white men gave them this power over her, and this power enabled them to take away her dignity. The thing that I found the most disturbing was that they only truly won in the end, once she was dead and couldn’t resist them. Therefore, whatever peace and dignity she might’ve found in death was taken away from her.
Throughout the film, I felt deep shame and discomfort when watching others mutilate Sara’s body, and those emotions were heightened by the distance created through the scene. However, my discomfort and shame impacted how I viewed the film and what I took away from it. I was so uncomfortable knowing that what happened to Sara Baartman was not an isolated event, and that people really treated other human beings that way. This realization can be useful in the future to fight for change and learn from past mistakes. In the future, dignity should be protected and valued because once we lose it, we lose control over our own narrative.