[Marxism] Ota Benga
lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 6 09:24:32 MDT 2006
(I strongly urge comrades to read the entire article on the NY Times
website since it has a number of photos that help to illustrate the racism
that led to putting a Congolese pygmy on display at the Bronx Zoo.)
NY Times, August 6, 2006
The Scandal at the Zoo
By MITCH KELLER
WHEN New Yorkers went to the Bronx Zoo on Saturday, Sept. 8, 1906, they
were treated to something novel at the Monkey House.
At first, some people werent sure what it was. It he seemed much less
a monkey than a man, though a very small, dark one with grotesquely pointed
teeth. He wore modern clothing but no shoes. He was proficient with bow and
arrow, and entertained the crowd by shooting at a target. He displayed
skill at weaving with twine, made amusing faces and drank soda.
The new resident of the Monkey House was, indeed, a man, a Congolese pygmy
named Ota Benga. The next day, a sign was posted that gave Ota Bengas
height as 4 feet 11 inches, his weight as 103 pounds and his age as 23. The
sign concluded, Exhibited each afternoon during September.
Visitors to the Monkey House that second day got an even better show. Ota
Benga and an orangutan frolicked together, hugging and wrestling and
playing tricks on each other. The crowd loved it. To enhance the jungle
effect, a parrot was put in the cage and bones had been strewn around it.
The crowd laughed as the pygmy sat staring at a pair of canvas shoes he had
been given. Few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being
in a cage with monkeys as companions, The New York Times wrote the next
day, and there could be no doubt that to the majority the joint
man-and-monkey exhibition was the most interesting sight in Bronx Park.
But the Ota Benga exhibit did not last. A scandal flared up almost
immediately, fueled by the indignation of black clergymen like the Rev.
James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in
Brooklyn. Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one
of us with the apes, Mr. Gordon said. We think we are worthy of being
considered human beings, with souls.
One hundred years later, the Ota Benga episode remains a perfect
illustration of the racism that pervaded New York at the time. Mayor George
McClellan, for example, refused to meet with the clergymen or to support
their cause. For this he was congratulated by the zoos director, William
Temple Hornaday, a major figure not only in the zoos history but also in
the history of American conservation, who wrote to him, When the history
of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing
The Bronx Zoo, which opened in 1899, was a young institution during the Ota
Benga scandal. Those at the zoo today look back at the episode with a
mixture of regret and resignation. It was a mistake, said John Calvelli,
senior vice president for public affairs of the Wildlife Conservation
Society, which owns and runs the zoo. When you reflect on it, you realize
that it was a moment in time. You have to look at the time in which it
happened, and you try to understand why this would occur.
That understanding may deepen with a recent spike in interest in Ota Benga,
who died in March 1916 when he shot himself in the heart. His story has
inspired writers, artists and musicians, and there is even an effort to
exhume his remains from a cemetery in Lynchburg, Va., where he spent the
last six years of his life, and return them to Congo.
This was his wish, said Dibinga wa Said, a Congolese involved in the
exhumation campaign. He wanted to go home.
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