Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga

When I attended shul on Friday night, our rabbi, who grew up in Apartheid South Africa, called Trump’s victory an reassertion of a white supremacist state.  One gentlemen, from out of town, collared the rabbi afterward to vocally disagree.

Perhaps that wayward man should read Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Oto Benga.  Newkirk documents how anthropologists and scientists exploited an African “pygmy” taken or stolen from the Congo. Oto Benga was displayed at the turn of the century at the St. Louis World Fair, and eventually in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo, where he was forced to “attend” to the primates.

Voices at the time, especially African-American clergy, protested, but it was a hard and bitter struggle to wrestle Oto Benga from the control of his captors.  That his life ended in ended in tragedy is hardly a surprise, given the harrowing experiences he had in the Congo and America, and the violent dislocations he suffered.

Ota Benga was not considered fully human by most of white America. This was not an abnormal view in early twentieth century. Pseudo-scientific race theories were gaining currency, and Africans, and particular Africans of Oto Benga’s tribe, with their short stature and distinctively sharpened teeth, were considered a lower form of human being.

Outward forms of American racism may have changed in a hundred years, but the underlying premise remain.  The man in the shul should read this book and read it well.

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