By: Lauren Seitz
In 1906, Ota Benga, a four-foot-eleven-inch “African pygmy,” began his nearly three-week long exhibition at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The exhibit, which was viewed by thousands of people per day, encouraged viewers to see Benga in primitive and animalistic terms; zoo officials clothed him in animal skins and kept him in a cage. They even introduced chimpanzees into the cage with him, leading spectators to create a connection between the chimps and the “pygmy,” a term which was formerly used to refer to monkeys (Newkirk, “When the Bronx Zoo Exhibited a Man in an Iron Cage”).
This wasn’t the first time that Benga had been exhibited in the United States. Two years earlier, an American named S.P. Verner had bought Benga’s freedom in an African slave market and convinced him and eight other pygmies to exhibit themselves at the St. Louis World’s Fair because they were believed to be “the lowest rung on the evolutionary scale” (Newkirk, “The Man Who was Caged in a Zoo”). Benga and his fellow pygmies were taken to the Fair’s anthropology exhibit and were housed next to a group of Native Americans. After his time at the fair was over, Benga was released to go back home to Africa, and, two years later, after finding life there unsatisfactory, he returned to the United States with Verner (Zielinski).
It was Verner who arranged for Benga to be exhibited, first at the American Museum of Natural History and, later, deciding it was too barbaric for a man to live in a museum, at the Bronx Zoo (Zielinski). Unlike many of the human exhibits at the time, Benga simply sat solemnly in his cage on a stool, glaring at the crowds—an estimated 40,000 people per day—that gawked at him. Even with no performative aspect to his exhibit, zoo-goers were fascinated by what they considered to be a different, and presumably “inferior,” race of beings, and scientists used Benga to trumpet the triumphs of Western colonization: “Benga’s exhibition on the hallowed grounds of the New York Zoological Gardens [Bronx Zoo] was not mere entertainment – it was educational. They [scientists] believed Benga belonged to an inferior species; putting him on display in the zoo promoted the highest ideals of modern civilization” (Newkirk, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”).
African-American ministers, along with a minority of white elites, protested his treatment, and it was these protests that eventually got him released after twenty days in the zoo—but this didn’t occur without a fight. The protesters hit “a wall of white indifference, as New York’s newspapers, scientists, public officials, and ordinary citizens reveled in the spectacle” (Newkirk, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”). Newspaper headlines, such as one from the New York Times on September 9, 1906, exclaimed: “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes,” and the article noted “It is a probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply. If he did it isn’t likely that he would be produ [sic] of himself…” (“Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes”).
At the beginning of Benga’s captivity and display, there was a sense of public indifference to the inhumanity of the exhibit; quickly, however, spectators became more outspoken, as protests from the black community, as well as white southerners who believed that Benga’s treatment was inhumane, became larger and more publicized. Newspapers from all over the country picked up the story–some in favor of Benga’s exhibit and some opposed–but the opposition began to win out. Rage was ignited in African-American communities across the country, with Reverend Matthew Gilbert writing in the New York Times: ‘“Only prejudice against the negro race made such a thing possible in this country”’ (Newkirk, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”). Benga also began to fight back more often and more aggressively against his captors, leading him to become a liability, both physically and publicity-wise, for the zoo. Bowing to intense public pressure and even the threat of a lawsuit, Benga was finally released, twenty days after he was first put on display (Newkirk, “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo”). Crowds around the country cheered.
We would like to think that we’ve learned lessons, both cultural and social, from Benga’s exhibition, but Stassa Edwards explains that this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, she argues, “history has effectively silenced” Benga’s story. Edwards asserts that it’s not necessarily the story of Benga that is forgotten but the reasons it happened in the first place. When people hear Benga’s story, it elicits a response that is something along the lines of “Oh, that poor man!” We need not to pity Benga, but we should learn from his story–lessons that have gone largely unlearned over the past century. Pamela Newkirk, who has just published a book about the trials of Ota Benga, explains, in an interview with Edwards that “[t]he racial ideology that resulted in Benga’s capture and captivity in the zoo was deeply embedded in science, in politics, media, and in American popular culture.” Racial issues such as these continue to pervade our society, as racial discrimination remains a pillar of systematic injustice.
In fact, Newkirk argues, the Black Lives Matter movement has merely taken the place of Benga as the spectacle of African American suffering in America. She states that the movement has become “the prism through which white America observes the novelty of caged black life” (Newkirk, “The Numbing Spectacle of Racism”). The movement is largely driven by the African- American community and aims to point out the violence suffered by black men and women at the hands of police officers; the larger conversation surrounding the hashtag has branched out to address the pervasiveness of racism that is embedded in our society today, from education and poverty issues to mass incarceration—a topic which bears the most resemblance to Benga’s case, as, according to the NAACP, “African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses…[and] serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months)”.
A large majority of white Americans, though aware of implications of this systematic racism, don’t do anything about it. Newkirk points out that “Over breakfast cereal we now watch the televised spectacle of unarmed black males in custody…. When faced with the most glaring evidence of malice, most good people concur that black lives matter—before switching the station and going on with their day” (“The Numbing Spectacle of Racism”). That a large part of the white majority continues to overlook what’s happening today just solidifies the fact that we have not learned much from the oppressive social climate during Benga’s captivity and the stigma against African Americans that allowed him to be put there in 1906.
Though, today, most would never openly exhibit humans, the racism that caused Benga to become a human exhibit in the first place nevertheless continues. Over a century has passed since Ota Benga was treated as an animal at the Bronx Zoo. If we continue to ignore the reasons behind human exhibits such as Benga’s, we cannot learn to overcome them. Are the attitudes that originated from human exhibits still present today? Yes. Do we still have a lot to learn from our shameful history of these exhibits? Yes. Should we continue to believe that society no longer operates with these motivations? Absolutely not.
For more information on African American incarceration rates, click here.
For a New York Times book review of Pamela Newkirk’s new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, click here.
“Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes.” New York Times. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. 09 Sept. 1906. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.
“Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” NAACP. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 2015. Web. 07 Dec. 2015.
Edwards, Stassa. “Talking to Pamela Newkirk About Ota Benga, the Man Kept in the Bronx Zoo.” Pictoral. Jezebel.com, 11 Aug. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015
Newkirk, Pamela. “The Man Who Was Caged in a Zoo.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 3 June. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Newkirk, Pamela. “The Numbing Spectacle of Racism.” The Nation. The Nation. 01 June 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Newkirk, Pamela. “When the Bronx Zoo exhibited a Man in an Iron Cage.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 3 June 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Richman, Joe. “From the Belgian Congo to the Bronx Zoo.” National Public Radio. NPR. 08 Sept. 2006. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Zielinksi, Sarah. “The Tragic Tale of the Pygmy in the Zoo.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. 02 Dec. 2008. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.