Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga by Pamela Newkirk

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One Saturday morning in 1906, thousands of New Yorkers flocked to the Bronx Zoo to see their newest exhibit. The barreled past the animals, through the monkey house, to gawk at the display…an African man named Ota Benga. Yep, about a hundred years ago, we put a black guy in a zoo and charged admission for white folks to come in and stare at him.

I’ve talked before about how the fascinating and horrible thing about history is that the victors and the powerful are the ones who set up the narrative. Yet, every once and awhile, a book comes out that tries to give a voice to those whom history has muted. Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga is one of those books.

For the last century, the only stories we heard about Benga were from the white men who profited from his plight. Zoo officials and the media were only too happy to paint the man as the “little African savage” who enjoyed his time in the monkey house. The New York Times made sure to point out that the keepers occasionally let Benga out into the woods.

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Samuel Philipps Verner, a failed scientist who took him from his home in the Congo to the Bronx Zoo, painted himself as Benga’s savior and friend. His story about rescuing Benga changed throughout the years, sometimes saying he found him in a village, other times that he rescued the man from cannibals. Zoo officials couldn’t stop yammering about how happy he was. And the eugenic “scientists” reminded people that even if Benga were unhappy, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t like he was a real person.

Eventually, thanks to public pressure and Benga’s escapades (he tried to escape a few times and once brandished a knife at his keepers) the zoo released him after 20 long days. Benga tried to make a life for himself in different parts of the U.S. but he wanted to go home. He couldn’t afford the journey. Decades later, some of his neighbors remember a song he used to sing “I believe I’ll go home/Lordy, won’t you help me.” Eventually, Benga shot himself in the heart.

This book is meticulously researched, with archival evidence, newspaper articles, and journal entries from those who were involved. The critical voice missing from Spectacle, of course, is Benga. He never learned to read or write, and wasn’t able to leave behind any letters or diaries to tell us how he felt. In trying to fill that void, the author sometimes oversteps from history to fiction. She tells us how Benga “did not initially comprehend their language but could feel both the sting of their scorn and the pang of their pity.” She also spends a lot of time trying to explain the psychological effects of trauma, before ultimately diagnosing Benga with PTSD. Slip ups like this cheapened the book, especially since it wasn’t necessary. Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga is horrifying enough without having to embellish.

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