Friday, February 22, 2019

Ota Benga Story Challenges Our Illusions About How Enlightened We Are

A few weeks ago I was looking at some notes from the philosophy club that used to meet at our house a number of year ago. I was struck by a couple of significant dates. Neither was a precise date, but rather a general one, the first being the dawn of the Renaissance.

Professor Robinson stated that the although the Renaissance is loosely pegged as beginning in the 13th century, it wasn't until centuries later that it was actually "named" the Renaissance. The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, followed in its wake, an intellectual and philosophical movement that was more of an 18th century phenomenon that flowed out of those streams.

At the time, European intellectuals took great pride in being part of this "enlightened" species of humanity. But when we look back, one wonders how they could have been so obtuse. Yes, they invented things and produced remarkable architecture and art, but by another measure--how people were treated--it's almost as if they were still in the dark ages. Consider the atrocities of Belgium's King Leopold in the Congo.

In the 19th century the American slave trade was still alive and well. In 1850, our enlightened Supreme Court declared that the Negro was not a person. The atrocities committed against Native Americans were zealously carried out by "enlightened" white folk who immigrated here from Europe. When a judge ruled that the indigenous peoples were indeed human beings with rights, the powers that be took it to a higher court to have that ruling overturned so they could take still more of their land.

Why do I bring these things up? Because the further in the past that it occurred the more we can distance ourselves from it.

This week I began reading Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga by Pamela Newkirk. The Ota Benga story doesn't take place in our American pre-history. It is a 20th century story that took place in New York City.

Ota Benga was a pygmy from the African bush country who had been brought to North America as a sideshow. He was brought first to St. Louis to be displayed in the 1904 World's Fair there, and then to the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Ota Benga was an immediate sensation. His home was in the monkey house.

You read that correctly. He was treated like the other monkeys, in a cage where people gawked at him, where he had no privacy. And when there were complaints about his being in the monkey house, the response was, "Yes, but it is one of the nicer cages here."

Ms. Newkirk does more than just tell the Ota Benga story though. It is a story about rich, powerful men, about exploitation and an exploration of the attitudes that enabled these kinds of things to happen.

Here's a quote from an Amazon review that sums up some of the feelings roused by this story:
"I found it mind-boggling to read about a human being that was taken from his native land and put on display at a zoo for all of the world to see like some caged animal. Even though the book is not solely about Benga, I learned so many more facts about other things from reading this book. This was a great history lesson."

Another Amazon reviewer wrote:
"Excellent historical documentation supporting story of Ota Benga. Underscores how politics, greed, fake science, failure of religious institutions, and ignorance and indifference can spawn oppression and cruelty toward any targeted group of people."

A 2015 NYTimes book review cites this passage from the preface by Pamela Newkirk:
“While on the surface this appears to be the saga of one man’s degradation — of a shocking and shameful spectacle — on closer inspection it is also the story of an era, of science, of elite men and institutions, and of racial ideologies that endure today.”

In order to give him a more fierce aspect, Benga's teeth had been filed so they were pointed. Eventually, he did find freedom from the zookeepers and went to work in a tobacco plant in Lynchburg, Virginia where he received new teeth. His desire to return home to Africa was strong and he looked forward to the day when this would happen. Unfortunately, after his plans were made, World War I had broken out and passenger ships were forbidden to go out on the open seas. The result is an unhappy ending.

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Related Links
A Fresh Lens on the Notorious Episode of Ota Benga
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee Puts Manifest Destiny Into Perspective

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