It's hard to imagine that a mere century ago a human was on display at the Bronx Zoo in the primate house. Let that sink in. A young African man named Ota Benga was brought from the Congo to the zoo. In a cage. With monkeys. I know about racism. I know about people who view people from other races as less than human. But this shocked me. Pamela Newkirk tells Ota Benga's story in Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.
Newkirk focuses the story on Ota Benga's life, but sheds light on the larger picture of trade with Africa, King Leopold's terrible colonial policies in the Congo, and the state of race relations in the U.S. in the early 20th century. She conveys the sense in which Ota Benga was a unwitting pawn in the lives of the traders and scientists who directed his fate for many years. I loved the fact that he asserted his independence from time to time, escaping from his enclosure, chasing zoo patrons, and even letting loose with his bow and arrow. Unfortunately, for many years his fate was controlled by his keepers, even in post-slavery U.S.
While black clergy and others in New York immediately recognized the injustice of keeping Ota Benga in a zoo enclosure, many, including the throngs who came out to gawk at him, did not. He later spent some time in an orphanage, with children half his age, then moved to Virginia, where he worked in the tobacco industry and gained some education. Despairing that he would not be able to return home to Africa, he took his own life.
I did not enjoy Newkirk's non-chronological narrative. Maybe I'm too easily confused. Other than that, Spectacle provides a nice picture of an ugly period of our nation's past. There are plenty of kind souls, black and white, who play a positive role in Ota Benga's story. The real culprit is the feeling, all too pervasive a century ago, that some humans are less human than others.