restricted access Ota the Other: An African on Display in America
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{ 154 } \ Ota the Other An African on Display in America —Jocelyn L. Buckner One man’s life is another man’s spectacle. Barbara K irshenblatt-­ Gimblett, Destination Culture From his native land of darkness To the country of the free, In the interest of science And of broad humanity, Brought wee little Ota Benga, Dwarfed, benighted, without guile, Scarcely more than ape or monkey, Yet a man the while! So to tutor and enlighten— Fit him for a nobler sphere— Show him ways of truth and knowledge, Teach the freedom we have here In this land of foremost progress— In this Wisdom’s ripest age— We have placed him, in high honor, In a monkey’s cage! ’Mid companions we provide him, Apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, He’s Content! Wherefore decry them When he seems at ease? So he chatters and he jabbers In his jargon, asking naught { 155 } Ota the Other But for “Money—money—money!” Just as we have taught M. E. Buehler, “Ota Benga” At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States was alive and bustling with the sights and sounds of a young, growing, multicultural nation. Im­ migration from abroad was high, as individuals journeyed to the United States in search of freedom, opportunity, and a better life for their families. As the country expanded it also sought to articulate its collective identity. What was the United States of America, and who lived here? How were its inhabitants different from the rest of the world’s? How much more advanced—or evolved—was this new nation? These questions provoked curiosity about other cultures, manifested themselves in cultural displays such as World’s Fairs, and fed on modern advances in burgeoning scientific fields such as evolution and anthropology. Popular curiosity regarding the development of mankind inspired would-­ be anthropologists to travel to foreign locations and return with cultural artifacts—and people—worthy of scientific study and public display. While such expeditions could bring fame and fortune to the white male West­ ern explorer, they often did so at the expense of the darker-­ skinned southern and eastern communities they “discovered.” Sometimes, these individuals traveled to Western countries as captives or willing participants and were displayed before thousands of paying spectators. These audiences simultaneously desired to witness an alternate version of their shared common humanity. Desperate to understand themselves, Ameri­ cans flocked to these displays, colonial microcosms disguised as educational, family-­ friendly entertainment, in which, Homi Bhabha argues, “cultures recognize[d] themselves through their projections of ‘otherness.’”1 By naming difference within ethnographic displays of non-­ Western cultures and identifying them as other than themselves, the heterogeneous mix of early-­ twentieth-­ century Ameri­ cans were able to codify and congeal their own collective identity.2 Such is the historic, contextual backdrop for the dramatic story of Ota Benga, a pygmy from what was,at the turn of the last century,the Belgian Congo. After surviving the slaughter of his family and nearly his entire community by the Belgian Force Publique, which raided his village in search of elephant ivory, Benga was captured and sold into slavery to a rival tribe, the Baschileles. In 1904,Ameri­ can anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner, a former mission worker to Africa and the grandson of South Carolina slave owners, was commissioned by the Anthropology Exhibition of the St. Louis World’s Fair to travel to Af- { 156 } Jocelyn L. Buckner rica to “collect” the most unusual specimens of Africans to be placed on display with the other non-­ European races of the world. Verner purchased Benga from his captors for a few bags of salt and brought him to the United States with other African pygmies. Benga was first displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair, then in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo in 1906. The poem that serves as this essay’s epigraph, a parody of the Hiawatha verse form popular at the time,3 was published in the New York Times on September 19, 1906, and artistically problematizes Ota Benga’s position as a victim of Belgium’s colonial expansion into the African Congo at the turn of the century; global fervor surrounding Darwinism, racism, and evolution...


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