Hemings, Baartman and Complicated Fame with Samantha Pinto

Professor Samantha Pinto discusses her book, Infamous Bodies Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights. Using the idea of “vulnerability” as a touchstone to explain the celebrity of Sally Hemings and Sarah “the Hottentot Venus” Baartman, Prof. Pinto describes how each woman’s agency is complicated by dominant systems of coercion and violence. Sally Hemings was 14 when her owner Thomas Jefferson convinced her to enter into a sexual relationship that produced several children. The “open secret” of Jefferson and Hemings is fraught with unconsent/consent, freedom and respectability, slavery and race. Turning next to the exhibition of Sarah Baartman, Prof. Pinto looks into the promise and failure of contracts of labor in the post-slavery culture of English empire. The forced display of Baartman as “native womanhood” to curious white audiences occurred during a shifting legal framework that allowed for female agency while denying such an allowance. 
 Samantha Pinto is a Professor, Department of English and Director, Humanities Institute at University of Texas at Austin