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"Saartjie Baartman" by Andrea Desmond-SmithSara was born in 1789, Henrietta in 1920, more than 130 years later. Sara was a South African woman and Henrietta was an African American. They lived in different times, different worlds and they never knew each other, but they have a lot in common. Both were black women, and both were exploited by the people of their time.

I learned about Sara by accident while researching about colonization of Africa. I had never heard about her before but since I read her story, I often think about her.
Sara, or Saartjie Baartman (nobody knows her REAL name), was an orphan, a little girl born in South Africa that early in life became a slave of Dutch farmers in Cape Town.
When she was just 21 years of age she was taken to London with the promise of becoming Sarawealthy (and maybe free). Little did she know that she will become just part of a freak show, exhibited nude all over Britain like a circus animal. Turned out, Sara had a body different than those her white masters were used to, so they rapidly saw the possibility of gaining some money out of exploiting Sara’s physical features. She was exhibited in a cage, forced to dance and perform “tricks” in front of a white audience.  When a scandal broke out in England, she was taken out of the country to France, where more exposure of her body continued, this time becoming the principal attraction of the “scientific” community. When she was no longer an interesting subject, she was left to fend for herself working as a prostitute. She became an alcoholic and died at the “old age” of 25, victim of illnesses typical of poverty. But the same people that exploited her when she was alive, kept making a profit of her body after she died. Her skeleton, preserved genitals, and brain were placed on display in Paris’ Musée de l’Homme for many years until they where stored out of public view. She only found peace in 2002 when finally her remains returned to South Africa after a long legal battle. But the Museum kept casts of her body parts, still claiming ownership of Sara.

Henrietta Henrietta’s full name was Henrietta Pleasant, and she was born in Roanoke, Virginia. When she was just a little girl, she was taken to live with relatives after the death of her mother. Later in life, she married David Lacks and they had five children together. Just fourth months after giving birth to her last child, Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Before receiving any treatment, cancer cells from her body were taken without her knowledge or permission. They started treating her for the cancer, but her condition worsened quickly and got complicated with some other illnesses she had at the time. She finally died in 1951, not because of the cancer but of uremic poisoning at only 31 years of age. But her story didn’t end there, the cells that were taken from her body were given to researchers that were able to keep them alive and to grow them. Her cells were even given a name, HeLa and since they didn’t die, they were used for experiments, including to test the Polio vaccine. Over time, researchers began to grow Henrietta’s cells in mass production and to send them to scientists all over the world to use in countless experiments and because of them many medicines were developed.
Despite all that, Henrietta never benefited from any of this, and neither did her family, who didn’t know about Henriettas’s cells until fairly recently. While Henrietta unknowingly helped earn millions of dollars to drug companies, her family doesn’t have health insurance and they can’t benefit from the discoveries made with her cells.

The story of Sara repeated with Henrietta with a different twist. Sara was a slave, Henrietta was a free woman but both were manipulated, used for profit and denied dignity and recognition. These are stories of black women that were not allowed to own their own bodies, and a lot has to do with being black and being women.
Sara and Henrietta were not considered fully humans but only objects used for making money; their feelings and those of their families were ignored or discarded. Justice has come a little too late for them.
Unfortunately, there are many Saras and Henriettas in this world.

Links and resources for these two stories:

Saartje Baartman – Wikipedia
The Saartjie Project
Saartjie Baartman (Hottentot Venus) Project In The Works
The Life and Times of Sara Baartman Documentary
Henrietta Lacks - Wikipedia
Henrietta Lack’s cells were priceless, but her family can’t afford a hospital -The Guardian UK
Cells that save lives are a mother’s legacy – The New York Times

They call me Hottentot Venus  
They call me Hottentot Venus by Monica Clarke
Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography
Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography by Clifton Crais  and Pamela Scully
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks 
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Medical Apartheid
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington

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