SPECTACLE by Pamela Newkirk


The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga
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A shocking tale of a young African taken from his home for the purposes of Western science throws into relief the turn-of-the-century's ill-conceived intentions and prejudice.

It is hard to fathom placing a young Central African man of “pygmy” descent in a cage at the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan as a companion to be mocked and stared at by thousands of visitors, unless it was part of some weird art or political installation. Indeed, Newkirk (Journalism/New York Univ.; Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, 2000, etc.) notes in her work of careful scholarship how the director and chief curator of the New York Zoological Gardens, William Temple Hornaday, was delighted by his 1906 acquisition of the “pygmy,” who would undoubtedly attract hordes of viewers, with no idea how offensive the exhibit might be, especially to African-Americans. Newkirk has to fill in many blank spaces in this wrenching story of Ota Benga—his name would be spelled a dozen different ways over the course of his short life—who was eventually “rescued” by the director of an African-American orphanage in Brooklyn, with the aim of educating him to become a missionary to be sent back to Africa. Specifically, Benga never told his own story, so Newkirk has pursued the villain, Samuel Phillips Verner, a South Carolina–born racist who became a minister and went to Africa, only to ingratiate himself with the officials of King Leopold’s Belgium Congo in plundering African artifacts (sold to the Smithsonian and other American institutions) and preying on native tribes. The “diminutive forest people” would be his particular prize, first conveyed for exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Benga was the victim of the era's flourishing eugenics, and the author notes that he likely suffered from PTSD.

An inspired and moving work of intrepid scholarship.

Pub Date: June 2nd, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-06-220100-3
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2015


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