The Con­golese tribesman who was pa­raded around like a zoo an­i­mal.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - bookworld@wash­ Kim McLarin is the au­thor of three nov­els and the mem­oir “Di­vorce Dog: Men, Moth­er­hood and Midlife.” She is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of writ­ing, lit­er­a­ture and pub­lish­ing at Emer­son Col­lege. RE­VIEW BY KIM MCLARIN

One Satur­day morn­ing in Septem­ber 1906, a young, diminu­tive man named Ota Benga was put on ex­hibit at the pri­mate house at the New York Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens in the Bronx. At 4 feet 11 inches and ap­prox­i­mately 103 pounds, Benga was a na­tive of what was then known as the Congo Free State. For the next three weeks, New York­ers flocked to the zoo to gawk at and ha­rass the “pygmy” from Africa. Dur­ing that time, he went from lo­cal cu­rios­ity to cause cele­bre to in­ter­na­tional news.

This strange and shame­ful slice of Amer­i­can his­tory is the sub­ject of Pamela Newkirk’s com­pelling new book, “Spec­ta­cle.” For those familiar with the his­tory of hu­man ex­hi­bi­tions in Europe; the U.S. eu­gen­ics move­ment and other pseudo-sciences in the early 20th cen­tury; and the sad tale of Saartjie Baart­man, the 19th-cen­tury South African woman ex­hib­ited across Europe as the “Hottentot Venus,” Benga’s story may not be as­ton­ish­ing. But it is heart­break­ing.

Benga was brought to the United States in 1904 by Sa­muel Phillips Verner, the am­bi­tious, un­sta­ble scion of an aris­to­cratic South Carolina fam­ily that had owned slaves. Af­ter mak­ing his way to Africa as a mis­sion­ary, Verner soon cast off re­li­gious as­pi­ra­tions and re­placed them with com­mer­cial ones. In time, he man­aged to land a com­mis­sion from or­ga­niz­ers of the St. Louis World’s Fair (in­clud­ing the Na­tional Geo­graphic So­ci­ety and the Amer­i­can An­thro­po­log­i­cal So­ci­ety) to pro­vide hu­man ex­hibits. Or, rather, to of­fer “cer­tain na­tives the op­por­tu­nity of at­tend­ing the Ex­po­si­tion in per­son.”

Schol­ars have largely doc­u­mented Baart­man’s jour­ney from Cape Town to Europe (she told abo­li­tion­ists work­ing to help her that she came of her own ac­cord, but her choices were se­verely limited). But Newkirk is un­able to con­firm the true cir­cum­stances of Benga’s jour­ney to Amer­ica with Verner. Was Benga cap­tured? Bought? En­ticed? All we have is Verner’s self-ag­gran­diz­ing word, which changed like the tide.

Verner gave vary­ing and con­flict­ing ac­counts of his meet­ing with Benga. In one ver­sion, writ­ten for Harper’s Weekly, Verner claimed he found Benga when Benga was be­ing held cap­tive by the Baschilele tribe, which Verner said (against other ev­i­dence) was can­ni­bal­is­tic. In an­other ver­sion, he said he found Benga with fel­low mem­bers of his tribe near their set­tle­ment and ar­ranged with the chief to bring Benga to Amer­ica. In yet an­other retelling, he claimed to have en­coun­tered Benga be­ing held by troops of the Bel­gian-ruled gov­ern­ment. Benga, he said, elected to travel with him upon be­ing of­fered em­ploy­ment.

As Newkirk writes: “The de­scrip­tions of their en­counter would con­tinue to change over the years. The only con­sis­tent themes were the threat of can­ni­bals and Verner’s role as Benga’s sav­ior.”

The au­thor makes clear that what­ever the truth of Benga and Verner’s meet­ing, Benga and his fel­low Con­ge­lese were highly vul­ner­a­ble to men like Verner. Un­der the mer­ce­nary and bru­tal rule of Bel­gian King Leopold II, Congo had be­come a blood-soaked land of ex­ploita­tion, en­slave­ment and mass mu­ti­la­tion. Leopold ex­tracted a for­tune in ivory and rub­ber from Congo and, through the feared gen­dar­marie known as the Force Publique, caused mil­lions of deaths. Verner moved un­touched and un­con­cerned through this night­mar­ish ter­rain, “hunt­ing pyg­mies,” pro­tected by Bel­gian and Amer­i­can sup­port, Newkirk writes.

“Spec­ta­cle” is an ex­haus­tively re­searched work of so­cial his­tory that links Benga’s story with ex­am­i­na­tions of turn-of-the-cen­tury racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and dis­cord, sci­en­tific poly­genism (a the­ory propos­ing dif­fer­ent ori­gins for peo­ple of dif­fer­ent races), mid­dle-class African Amer­i­can life in New York, and yel­low jour­nal­ism. The reader is given full bios not only of the pri­mary and sec­ondary ac­tors in Benga’s brief life but also of many ter­tiary ones. This slows down the nar­ra­tive, es­pe­cially at the be­gin­ning of the book, when the over­load of facts, fig­ures and back­ground in­for­ma­tion about mar­ginal peo­ple and in­sti­tu­tions seems less like con­text and more like de­lay. But the book picks up steam once New York’s black clergy lead a protest against Benga’s ex­hi­bi­tion. What hap­pens as a re­sult of that protest and the sad, en­su­ing tra­jec­tory of Benga’s life are sharply told.

One crit­i­cal voice miss­ing from “Spec­ta­cle” is, of course, Benga’s. Though he even­tu­ally learned to speak bro­ken English, he left be­hind no let­ters or jour­nals to en­lighten us about his thoughts or feel­ings about his or­deal. This si­lence lies at the heart of much of the African ex­pe­ri­ence in the New World, a si­lence that keeps the re­al­ity of that ex­pe­ri­ence muted in Amer­i­can his­tory. In his master­piece, the epic poem “Mid­dle Pas­sage,” Robert Hay­den ad­dresses the prob­lem not by at­tempt­ing to en­ter the minds of the en­slaved Africans but rather by let­ting their very voice­less­ness speak with the sound of thun­der. Africans emerge at cen­ter stage as Hay­den gives voice to ev­ery­one else — traders, a slave-ship crew­man, a crew-mem­ber sur­vivor of the re­bel­lion on the Amis­tad.

Newkirk pro­ceeds dif­fer­ently, and in try­ing valiantly to fill the void, she mis­steps. For ex­am­ple, she stretches to de­scribe the Bronx Zoo mad­ness from Benga’s point of view: “He did not ini­tially com­pre­hend their lan­guage but could feel both the sting of their scorn and the pang of their pity. In their wide eyes he could see his hu­man­ity, like one’s im­age in a fun house mir­ror, mon­strously dis­torted.” Fic­tion­al­iz­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence in this way has the un­in­tended ef­fect of dis­tanc­ing us from the real and un­know­able Benga rather than drawing us near. Newkirk fur­ther tries to bridge the emo­tional gap by quot­ing ex­ten­sively from re­search on the psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of shame and trauma, and on de­pres­sion, but this tech­nique is nei­ther par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive nor nec­es­sary. It is enough to tell the tale.


Ota Benga was brought to the United States from Congo in 1904 and put on dis­play in 1906 at the pri­mate house at the New York Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens in the Bronx.

SPEC­TA­CLE The As­ton­ish­ing Life of Ota Benga By Pamela Newkirk Amis­tad. 297 pp. $25.99

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.