In 1906, an African native known as Ota Benga was displayed in a cage in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo. Thousands came to view the sensational exhibit. They shouted, pointed fingers, and laughed at the man, who stood 4 feet 11 inches in height and weighed 103 pounds. A sign outside the cage described him as an African Pygmy from the Congo Free State, and announced that he would be exhibited each afternoon during September. An orangutan shared the space with Benga, at times perching on his shoulder. The cage was littered with bones to suggest cannibalism, even though Benga was not a cannibal.
This story may sound too shocking and unbelievable to be true. But according to research conducted by today’s guest, Pamela Newkirk, the historical record shows these events occurred. Dr. Newkirk is the author of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. The book documents the story of a young African man who was brought to America from Central Africa in 1904. Ota Benga was first featured at an anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair, and two years later in the Primate House at the Bronx Zoo. Spectacle uncovers long-obscured facts about Benga’s life, while also exploring the racial ideologies and prejudices that prevailed at the time, and that still cast shadows today.
Pamela Newkirk is an award-winning journalist, and a professor of journalism and director of undergraduate studies at New York University. Her book, Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism.