originally published September 6, 2014
Within the margins of human behavior, how is it possible for our hunger for self-awareness to coexist with our penchant for abandoning empathy and basic compassion? History’s most exquisite brains have combed the mines of knowledge and speculation in order to pilfer as much truth about ourselves as can be swallowed by mortal minds, yet in doing so they have occasionally stomped upon our collective dignity by treating the subjects of their study as though they belonged to an unrelated sub-species.
Ota Benga was just a dude. Had the trajectory of his existence not been marred by western interference, he might have lived a blasé life of hunting, storytelling and raising a family. Instead he was plucked from the lush, equatorial forests of his youth and made a slave, a sideshow wonder, and a zoological exhibit for slack-jawed tourists.
Most of the injustices thrust upon Ota’s arc were done with the false pretense of anthropological education, cloaked in evolutionary flim-flammery and racist eugenics. But what did we learn, apart from humankind’s tragically vast tolerance for our own assholishness?
A member of the Mbuti tribe in what was then called the Belgian Congo, Ota Benga’s life was first derailed by Belgium’s King Leopold II around the turn of the 20th century. Leopold had dispatched the Force Publique, a heavily-armed militia aimed at reminding the Congolese natives that they’d best remain devoted to producing rubber for Belgium’s financial gain. Ota was out on a hunt when the armed men showed up and murdered his wife and two children. When he returned to his village, he was captured as a slave.
In 1904, an American businessman named Samuel Phillips Verner had been sent to Africa to retrieve a selection of pygmies for an exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Anthropologist W.J. McGee, eager to boost awareness of his relatively new scientific discipline, wanted to showcase a variety of global people. This wasn’t so much a display of global diversity as it was a demonstration of “cultural evolution.”
As you may have guessed, that’s merely a euphemism for “dickish, pseudo-scientific racism.”
Bought for the price of a pound of salt and a ream of cloth, Ota Benga and Sam Verner were en route to a nearby Batwa village. Once there, Verner tried to recruit more locals for his mission, though understandably the tribe was somewhat suspicious of white folks, in particular because the only ones they’d met had been a little on the murdery side. But Ota praised Verner, believing the man had saved his life from the horrors of slavery. Four Batwa men signed on for the trip.
They all arrived in St. Louis and immediately the Africans became the hit of the World’s Fair. Naturally adapting to the capitalism of their surroundings, the tribesmen learned to charge for photographs with their gawking audience. Ota charged five cents for a look at his teeth, which had been filed down to sharp points as part of a youthful ritual decoration. One newspaper called Ota “the only genuine African cannibal in America.” Fact verification wasn’t a big deal in journalism back then.
For his lack of compassion in dragging these folks to this degrading affront to science, Verner did the noble thing and brought them all back to Africa once the Fair had wrapped up. Ota continued to travel with Verner. He remarried, but his new wife was taken down by a snake bite. When Verner returned to the US, Ota came with. Verner arranged for Ota to sleep in a spare room at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The price of rent was once again to be measured in tourists.
Ota kneeled over a fake campfire and fed fake meat to a pretend child as a demonstration of life in Africa. He was a living exhibit, attracting scads of curiosity. But he longed for his freedom. He tired of being a savage for hire – in fact, he began to exhibit an outward hostility toward his employers. They wanted a savage? He’d give them a savage. When asked to seat an affluent donor’s wife, Ota pretended not to understand, picking up the chair and hurling it across the room, nearly thwacking the woman in the skull.
Museum curator Henry Bumpus suggested that maybe it was time for Ota to leave for greener pastures. Maybe someplace like…
…the Bronx Zoo. Ota took to the Monkey House exhibit and was encouraged by staff to hang his hammock there. Soon there was a sign placed beside the exhibit, informing visitors about the history of this “African pygmy.” Zoo director William Hornaday was thrilled at the exotic and somehow educational exhibit. Madison Grant, the secretary of the New York Zoological Society felt Ota should be right beside the apes. Grant was heavily into eugenics, which is an offensive branch of pseudo-science, created and studied by white people, which posits a racial ranking of evolutionary advancement among humans. Not surprisingly, white people have placed themselves on the top rung of this particular ladder.
While African-American clergymen and activists spoke out against this callous display of dehumanization, The New York Times actually defended it in an editorial, suggesting that placing Ota in a school would serve no purpose. “The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.” So much for the bastion of Great American Journalism.
Despite being granted the freedom to wander around the zoo and probably receiving a guaranteed three meals a day (from a bucket or a plate – I’m not sure which), Ota longed once more for freedom and became violent in his captivity. By the end of 1906, he was asked to leave.
Released into the custody of a Reverend Gordon, Ota was dropped into an orphanage, then eventually relocated to Lynchburg, Virginia. His teeth were capped and he was given a new wardrobe. Local poet Anne Spencer tutored Ota, and helped him to blend into his American surroundings as a citizen, rather than an object of study. He eventually found employment at a local tobacco factory, where he was popular among his coworkers, and happy to retell his life’s story in exchange for a root beer.
In his heart, Ota truly believed that he belonged in Africa. He had finally tasted the true flavor of western culture, and in comparing that with the world he’d left behind, he opted to return home. Unfortunately, the violence of World War I had cut off all transatlantic passenger travel. There was no way for Ota to return to the Congo, and no way of knowing how long this war would last. He became despondent.
On March 16, 1916, Ota built a ceremonial fire, chipped the dental caps from his teeth, and pressed the barrel of a stolen pistol against his chest. Believing would never again feel the warmth of his true home, Ota took his own life at the age of 32.
What can we learn from this? In this relatively enlightened age of moderate societal equality, the most we can gain from Ota’s story is a window into how closed-off we once were to the most basic of human rights. Yes, there was dissent from the African-American community over Ota’s treatment, but at no time in his life was he the subject of a human rights investigation. There was outrage, but it all came from the fringe, while the rest of society grabbed some popcorn and gaped at the show.
The tourists who abided this treatment and paid to see it – they’re the ones who we should be gawking at through the lens of astounding history.