OTA BENGA: The Pygmy at the Zoo by Phillips Verner & Harvey Blume Bradford

OTA BENGA: The Pygmy at the Zoo

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An affecting story of an ugly instance of Western hubris, as told to writer Blume by the grandson of the man responsible for bringing Ota Benga, a pygmy eventually placed in a zoo, to America. Like so many others at the end of the 19th century, Samuel Phillips Verner was caught up in the enthusiasm for science, especially Darwinism and anthropology, which seemed to promise that a tidy scientific ranking could be imposed not only on plants and animals but on races as well. To this end, Verner, originally a Presbyterian missionary in the Congo, was commissioned to supply the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis with a band of pygmies for the anthropology exhibit. These pygmies--including Benga--were to join the famed Native American leader Geronimo, a Patagonian Indian, and other ""permanent wildmen of the world, the races that had been left behind."" But Verner himself was a man of considerable complexity. Determined, like his hero Robinson Crusoe, to escape the safe ""middle station"" in life, he was also as a southerner haunted by racial guilt. He developed a close and warm friendship with Benga, who asked to stay on after the Fair was over. Delivered by Verner to the Natural History Museum in New York, where he soon became ""restless,"" Benga was then transferred to the Bronx Zoo. There, his presence in the same cage as an ape, along with a description identifying him as ""The African Pygmy Exhibited Each Afternoon,"" outraged the media and the public. Verner, congenitally broke, agreed to have local black clergy house Benga in a black orphanage. Later, the pygmy was moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where, though he became a respected member of local black society, memories of his African past haunted him. He finally committed suicide in 1916. A somber cautionary tale, well told, of human ambition, arrogance, and ignorance unchecked.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1992
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: St. Martin's