“Venus in Two Acts”: Let us Mourn the double tragedy

This is a review of Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts.” I have been thinking about how to make feminist literature more accessible, and I’ve decided to do a series of articles linking feminist literature to social happenings and issues. This is the first of a hopefully exciting journey.

To be black in America can be to remember dozens of afternoons spent on stoops in the summer - laughing, loving and living. In the same breath it can be to approximate where you were when Trayvon Martin’s name first slid through your lips; to remember where you were when Michael Brown was inducted into your living room as “another black man killed in America.”

At the same time, I am reminded that to be black in America is never to remember where you were when you first heard that Miriam Carey, a dental hygienist from Connecticut, had been shot and killed in a car chase in the nation’s capital. It is to never to be able to recall when you first knew that Tanisha Anderson, a schizophrenic mother of one in Cleveland, had been murdered by police, unarmed, outside her mother’s home.

And so it follows that to be a black woman in America is to navigate the mortality that blackness threatens within the intimacy of black community, whilst having to remember that you are also a woman, on your own. It is to split yourself into two daily, unconsciously and unnecessarily. It is to forever remain aware of the possibility of being overlooked.

In her essay Venus in Two Acts Saidiya Hartman interrogates the ability of the archive to document black life in the Middle Passage. More specifically, she wrestles with the erasure of black girls from the public memory of racial violence through an archival encounter with an enslaved “dead girl” named Venus, on board a British slave ship named Recovery, in 1792.  Venus acts as a point of reckoning for the corporeal death that the slave ship enacts on black enslaved people and the social death that the archive facilitates in its failure to document black lives. Ultimately, Hartman questions the ability of the archive to hold black stories without re-victimizing their subjects. She then reveals the gaps within the archive of slavery and then proceeds to attempt to redress the violence that situates “Venus” as part of the collateral damage of a slave economy. In this political moment where many are coming to terms with the specific precarity of black womanhood, Saidiya Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts becomes a prophetic realization of the painful state of black women’s lives in public memory as well as a constructive template for the battles we shall have to wage in trying to do these stories justice.

Hartman begins her essay by telling us that Venus could have been “Harriet, Phibba Sara, Joanna, Rachel, Linda and Sally, she is found everywhere in the Atlantic World”. By invoking names of slaves that could have existed, she reminds us that the violence Venus experienced was spectacular yet at the same time so relatively mundane in the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that it is hard to imagine that her specific “encounter with power” deserves any unique attention.  In mapping out the systemic violence visited upon the bodies and memories of enslaved black women and girls, Hartman makes her readers recall that the normalization of such spectacular violence is the root of the dehumanization that black women have always encountered both in their lived experiences and in the archive. This is in part the essence of what Hartman wants to address – the double jeopardy that enslaved black women endured in both their lives and their afterlives.

Hartman imagines Venus’ tragedy as two fold. First, her body was ravaged and then “no one remembered her name, or recorded the things she said or observed that she refused to say anything at all”. She was at once killed and silenced. And so for Hartman the archive not only fails to memorialize Venus but also becomes “a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body” when confronted with the stories of the enslaved.

In the face of such loss, Hartman asks questions and reworks the fragments of discourse she finds in the archive in an attempt to bring us closer to producing a biography of Venus. Through her pensive and sometimes exasperated tone, made obvious by the litany of the questions she asks, “how can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know”, “Is it possible to construct a story from the locus of impossible speech or resurrect lives from the ruins?” she conveys her commitment to redressing the faults of the archive.

In the “The Second Act” she struggles through the painful work of re-constructing an account of Venus’ experience. She guides us through the thought processes that see her wrestling with the decision to not write about Venus in an effort to avoid romanticizing Venus’s trauma or to yield to the necessity of recounting Venus’ death. Though at times long-winded and contradictory, the transparency of this project is only made clear through such confusion – confusion that stems from the “irreparable violence of the Atlantic slave trade”, as the reader is reminded. Such confusion underscores the difficulty of constructing a narrative about under-documented enslaved people. In communicating the difficulty of such a task, Hartman creates a space for meaningful conversation on narrative construction, and its limitations, therefore democratizing the process of creating these stories.

In a political moment where black women’s bodies continue to be threatened by both violence and erasure; a moment, where some of us are mourning the double tragedy that black womanhood can be in America, such democratization of narrative building can aid in better memorializing black women who die in the hands of the state. Hartman is conscious of the political moment in which she is writing in and therefore extends her analysis of Venus to the present in order to help us make sense of the current state of black women in public life and memory. Hartman tells us that “if this story of Venus has any value at all it is in illuminating the way in which our age is tethered to hers”, a phenomenon that she describes as “the afterlife of property”. The killing and subsequent criminal portrayal of women and girls such as Miriam Carey and Tanisha Anderson are evidence of that tethering, of the fact that black women and girls still exist as “property” as “Venuses”. For Hartman, Venus is “Harriet, Phibba Sara, Joanna, Rachel, Linda and Sally”, but she is also Miriam, Tanisha, Michelle, Charleena and Aiyana. Venus is “found everywhere in the Atlantic World” both in the 17th century and today.

And whilst these women’s corporeal loss is not something we can salvage, “in the meantime” Hartman presses us to “recruit the past for the sake of the living”; “to produce knowledge for the sake of the past”. In the meantime, we are reminded that we can remember well. Because in a time where we are declaring that “all black lives matter”, we must make sure that the evidence of black women’s lives, these Venuses - as they lived, loved and worked- is undeniably present and forever haunting the public’s memory, at the very least

Link to Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts”: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/241115

Mumbi Kanyogo