Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga
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2016 NAACP Image Award Winner
An award-winning journalist reveals a little-known and shameful episode in American history, when an African man was used as a human zoo exhibit—a shocking story of racial prejudice, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century in the tradition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Devil in the White City, and Medical Apartheid.
In 1904, Ota Benga, a young Congolese “pygmy”—a person of petite stature—arrived from central Africa and was featured in an anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, the New York Zoological Gardens displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, 4-foot 11-inch tall man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe.
Spectacle explores the circumstances of Ota Benga’s captivity, the international controversy it inspired, and his efforts to adjust to American life. It also reveals why, decades later, the man most responsible for his exploitation would be hailed as his friend and savior, while those who truly fought for Ota have been banished to the shadows of history. Using primary historical documents, Pamela Newkirk traces Ota’s tragic life, from Africa to St. Louis to New York, and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his short life.
Illuminating this unimaginable event, Spectacle charts the evolution of science and race relations in New York City during the early years of the twentieth century, exploring this racially fraught era for Africa-Americans and the rising tide of political disenfranchisement and social scorn they endured, forty years after the end of the Civil War. Shocking and compelling Spectacle is a masterful work of social history that raises difficult questions about racial prejudice and discrimination that continue to haunt us today.
81 Johnson, William F., 192 Kasai Herald, 214 Kasai region Benga found near, 19, 117, 137 missions established in, 88 unrest/endless atrocities in, 166–167, 212 Kasai Rubber Company, 167, 213 Kasai tribes, portrayals of, 91–92, 159 Kassongo. See also Kondola; Verner, Samuel Phillips, Kassongo/Kondola and arrival in New York, 98 behavior stereotyped in Washington Post, 100 death of, 105–106 education of, 100–101 family background of, 102 orphaned at Luebo, 44, 91 physical
him.”9 Gordon announced that an “indignation meeting” would soon be held and that MacArthur would be among the speakers. If other white clergymen joined the protest, none appeared in the newspaper accounts of the period. On Wednesday Smith summoned the clergymen back to his office to inform them that he had consulted the corporation counsel, the city’s attorney, and would appeal to the court for Benga’s release. It is also likely that Smith discussed the matter with Booker T. Washington, given
time the “diabolical deed” was being committed in New York. “Yes, in the sacred city of New York where almost daily mobs find exciting sport in chasing negroes through the streets without much being said about it.”6 One could only imagine the uproar had a human being been displayed in a cage with an ape in the South, the article went on. “[Theodore] Roosevelt, whose heart is beating strongly for the colored man as the congressional elections approach, would have ordered the federal district
physical torture. Studies also consistently show a strong correlation between event-related shame and post-victimization symptoms including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, withdrawal, and phobias.2 One researcher, J. P. Gump, found that the most profound shame results from the destruction of your subjectivity when “what you need, what you desire, and what you feel are of complete and utter insignificance.”3 That would certainly apply to Benga as he endured the gawking of spectators
not, even by the so-called scientific standards of the day, have qualified as a true “pygmy.”12 Neither European nor American anthropologists would regard any adult male over five feet tall as a “pygmy.” Francis conceded that the only actual “pygmies” in the delegation were the four so-called Mbuti—Shamba, Malengo, Lumo, and Bomushubba, the last of whom was described as age twelve, and therefore, like Kondola and possibly others, not yet fully grown. But neither Francis nor Verner seemed