[Marxism] Ota Benga

Louis Proyect 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

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 weren’t 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 Benga’s 
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 zoo’s director, William 
Temple Hornaday, a major figure not only in the zoo’s 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.”

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/06/nyregion/thecity/06zoo.html

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