One of my favourite poems by a South African poet, ‘Swartjie Bartman’ by Lesedi Thwala, is about women’s experience of street harassment, particularly black women. It is powerfully written, and makes reference to Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman put on display for entertainment in England and France during the 1810s due to her large buttocks. She was displayed in several circuses, and wealthy customers could pay for private demonstrations in their homes, with their guests allowed to touch her. Thwala’s poem is about the sexual objectification of black women’s bodies, particularly by white men, drawing parallels with the ways in which Baartman’s body was perceived.
‘Swartjie Bartman’ by Lesedi Thwala
Jinne, hoekom het julle swartjies sulke mooi boude?
You hideously hiss and hoot while your
Tongue turbulently twirls twixt your teeth and your
Bulge bulbously bulges between your legs
Claiming that I should take it as a compliment
and be an accomplice and acquiesce you
a slice of the sjokolade-koek
because I am too beautiful for a black girl
and therefore should not be wearing a doek
en ek moet bly ommie-hoek
so that jou vrou en kinders don’t see
that you do not play by die boek
want swart en wit moet nooit meng nie
maar jy wil nou kroek
and I should know that my behind is all I am good for
en glad nie meer as dit ooit soek
ag nee! My skin is too dark
my English isn’t sharp
and my hair is so coarse!
But my butt…
My butt does wonders for you, of course!
So you drive past dark alleys hoping I will be there
So you can feed your fetid fetish and hope and wish that Oom Hans
Of Tant Sallie don’t see you met ‘n swartjie in jou bakkie
En as jy my sien,
You slow down and slobber
And flash me a twee-honderd-rand noot
And scream: “Kom vat meisietjie, gaan koop vir jou brood”
And you disclose your disgust
At my disapproval and drive past, while people stare at you aghast
Want jy kry dit nie man!
Dis duidelik dat ek is jou Swartjie Bartman
You can find out more about Lesedi Thwala here, where you can also hear the poet give a reading of ‘Swartjie Bartman’.