If you read the stories, it should become clear. There is so much here that is offensive. Underlying it all is the scientific and theological belief of polygenesis, that different races were different biological types of “human” or not even “human” at all. That is how it began. It was also entwined with the politics of segregation, and common sense understanding that…[I’m not even going to repeat it here].
Do not shrink away. When engaging the brokenness of this reality, mistakes will often happen. Do not fear. Minorities are usually very thankful to people who apologize and make things right, working to understand. It is a whole different thing when things like this take place. Something different took place here.
Take a look at this quote from wikipedia on a human zoo about 100 years ago, in 1906 in New York. Note of the response to black pastors protesting the zoo.
In 1906, Madison Grant—socialite, eugenicist, amateur anthropologist, and head of the New York Zoological Society—had Congolese pygmy Ota Benga put on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City alongside apes and other animals. At the behest of Grant, the zoo director William Hornaday placed Benga displayed in a cage with the chimpanzees, then with an orangutan named Dohong, and a parrot, and labeled him The Missing Link , suggesting that in evolutionary terms Africans like Benga were closer to apes than were Europeans. It triggered protests from the city’s clergymen, but the public reportedly flocked to see it.
Benga shot targets with a bow and arrow, wove twine, and wrestled with an orangutan. Although, according to The New York Times , “few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions”, controversy erupted as black clergymen in the city took great offense. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes”, said the Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”
New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. refused to meet with the clergymen, drawing the praise of Hornaday, who wrote to him: “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.”
As the controversy continued, Hornaday remained unapologetic, insisting that his only intention was to put on an ethnological exhibition. In another letter, he said that he and Grant—who ten years later would publish the racist tract The Passing of the Great Race —considered it “imperative that the society should not even seem to be dictated to” by the black clergymen.
On Monday, September 8, 1906, after just two days, Hornaday decided to close the exhibition, and Benga could be found walking the zoo grounds, often followed by a crowd “howling, jeering and yelling.”
This was not an innocent an ethnographic exhibit about people from a distant land that backfired. It was part of a myth-making exhibit, a story of origins, to explain why black people were segregated at that time. Remember, this is during segregation. Rather than engaging the black people in their midst to understand story, they put tribal people into a zoo to tell the their story as they understood it. When black people protested, they did not listen.
That was a long time ago. However, you will see echoes in the recent stories. They rhyme with the old stories. Here is a quotes from the article in 2007:
Other artists at the Festival of Pan-African Music (Fespam) are staying in hotels in the capital, Brazzaville. The organisers say the grounds of Brazzaville zoo are closer to the pygmies’ natural habitat. But the pygmy musicians say they had expected to be housed properly while staying in the city.
It is the fifth year they have performed at the festival and previously they have been treated the same as other guests. But this year the group of 20, including 10 women and a three-month-old baby, were given one tent to share in the city’s zoo. A spokeswoman for Fespam said the decision was made in consultation with the Forestry Ministry, so that the pygmies would not be cut off from their “natural environment”.
This was not an education tool. It is obscene. Adding to the insult, this was decided in consultation with a large number of people, and was not fixed immediately when they pygmies protested. Children were subjected to this abuse. This reveals something truly dark about the nature of society.
If something this egregious can happen in full view, consider what else happens that is not clear or big enough to hit the news.
This an important point to consider. Do not be afraid to engage these issues. Well meaning mistakes are forgiven. Part of what adds to the injury is when real protests are ignored. Mistakes are forgiven when they are quickly fixed, well-meaning, and lead to understanding. Even when real sin is uncovered, remember that racists are redeemable too.
Finally, respect the dead. It is important to know Benga’s story, and to honor him and remember. He was one of us. Any of us could have been him.
Ota Benga (c. 1883 – March 20, 1916) was an Mbuti (Congo pygmy) man, known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, and in a human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. Benga had been purchased from African slave traders by the missionary and anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner, a businessman searching for African people for the exhibition. He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was exhibited in the zoo’s Monkey House.
He began to plan a return to Africa, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 stopped ship passenger travel. Benga fell into a depression, and he committed suicide in 1916.
This man, a human being, he committed suicide, trying to find his way home. He died place ten years after being exhibited in New York, where @NLENTS is a professor. He died twelve years after being exhibited in St Louis, where I am a professor. He was 33 years old.