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Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

4.5 2
by Pamela Newkirk

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2016 NAACP Image Award Winner

Winner of the 2016 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction

An award-winning journalist reveals a little-known and shameful episode in American history, when an African man was used as a human zoo exhibit—a shocking story of racial prejudice, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century in


2016 NAACP Image Award Winner

Winner of the 2016 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction

An award-winning journalist reveals a little-known and shameful episode in American history, when an African man was used as a human zoo exhibit—a shocking story of racial prejudice, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century in the tradition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Devil in the White City, and Medical Apartheid.

In 1904, Ota Benga, a young Congolese “pygmy”—a person of petite stature—arrived from central Africa and was featured in an anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, the New York Zoological Gardens displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, 4-foot 11-inch tall man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe.

Spectacle explores the circumstances of Ota Benga’s captivity, the international controversy it inspired, and his efforts to adjust to American life. It also reveals why, decades later, the man most responsible for his exploitation would be hailed as his friend and savior, while those who truly fought for Ota have been banished to the shadows of history. Using primary historical documents, Pamela Newkirk traces Ota’s tragic life, from Africa to St. Louis to New York, and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his short life.

Illuminating this unimaginable event, Spectacle charts the evolution of science and race relations in New York City during the early years of the twentieth century, exploring this racially fraught era for Africa-Americans and the rising tide of political disenfranchisement and social scorn they endured, forty years after the end of the Civil War. Shocking and compelling Spectacle is a masterful work of social history that raises difficult questions about racial prejudice and discrimination that continue to haunt us today.

Editorial Reviews

James McBride
“This is an explosive, heartbreaking book. It unfolds with the grace of an E.L. Doctorow novel, and spins forward with the urgency of a wild tabloid story.”
Adam Hochschild
“Pamela Newkirk has taken a careful, highly readable look at an episode that lays bare so much about our not-so-distant past. It’s all here: the dreams of glory in African exploration, appalling racism, and the moving, tragic odyssey of a forgotten man who was the victim of both.”
New York Times
“[Ota Benga’s] story has been told before, but the journalist Pamela Newkirk fleshes it out with chilling human dimension and rich anthropological perspective in her engrossing new book, Spectacle.
Wall Street Journal
“A riveting account of one of the most startling episodes in the sorry history of race in America. Ms. Newkirk is a crisp storyteller as well as an experienced journalist whose investigative skills bring alive both her cast of characters and the age in which they lived.”
Washington Post
“Compelling. . . . Spectacle is an exhaustively researched work of social history that links Benga’s story with examinations of turn-of-the-century racial discrimination and discord, scientific polygenism, middle-class African American life in New York, and yellow journalism.”
Boston Globe
“Deeply researched and thoughtful. . . . Writing with precision and moral clarity, Newkirk indicts a civilization whose ‘cruelty was cloaked in civility,’ leaving us to examine its remnants.”
More magazine
“In this enthralling social history, Newkirk reveals the truth about Ota Benga, the people who exploited him and the heroes who fought vainly to save him.”
In These Times
“Painstakingly researched and heartbreaking. . . . Newkirk does an exemplary job of respecting the damaged dignity of her subject.”
The New Yorker
“Newkirks account of this shocking and shameful story is forceful.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“What became of Benga is best left discovered by readers of this revelatory book. Suffice to say that the shock of it will haunt you. Newkirk’s dispassionate, powerfully understated writing lets her sorrowful account speak for itself.”
“Haunting and heartbreaking.”
NYU Stories (Online)
“With her meticulously researched account, Newkirk rights the record, offering a profoundly unsettling look at the racism deeply rooted in even the city’s (and the nation’s) progressive institutions at the start of the 20th century.”
“Newkirk’s investigation is a nuanced account of Benga’s relationship with Verner and Hornaday, a subtle look into what it meant for a colonized African to be free and how the pursuit of scientific knowledge played a role in racial subjection.”
New York Times Book Review
“Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground. Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard.”
The New York Times Book Review - Harriet A. Washington
…Newkirk eschews the self-serving mythologies that have presented Benga's exhibition as voluntary and benign. She relentlessly unearths neglected primary sources such as museum archives and newspaper clippings, and she also includes statements by Benga's overlooked African-American benefactors, as well as those in whom he confided that he had been brought to the United States against his will…this book's stellar achievement eclipses its flaws. Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground. Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard.
Publishers Weekly
Newkirk (Within the Veil) centers this meticulously detailed monograph on the life of Ota Benga, a young Congolese man who at the beginning of the 20th century suffered the indignity of being caged with an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House. Although Benga himself left no written record of his experiences, Newkirk pieces together his story from the texts, photographs, and other records produced by the “lettered elite” whose members were complicit in his capture and display. While other African men and women, including the “Hottentot Venus” Sarah Baartman, had been exhibited to European audiences, Benga’s experience was unusual because it took place not in a “human zoo” but in one devoted to animals, thus depicting this African man not simply as exotic, but as a failure of human evolution. Newkirk places Benga’s story in the context of an ever more segregated and aggressively racist United States, a Europe intent on exploitation of Africa’s human and material resources, and a scientific culture that venerated objective inquiry but refused to question established ideas about race. The book might have benefited from a more effective structure, as it wanders through various times and locations. Nonetheless, readers will be moved, especially when reading about the tragic turns Benga’s life took in the years after he was released. (June)
Library Journal
In 1906, the New York Zoological Gardens unveiled an exhibit that became an international sensation: its Monkey House, inside which was caged a young Congolese man named Ota Benga. Ota was promoted as a "pygmy" and brought to the United States for the sole purpose of serving as an anthropological display. In New York, Ota was presented as half zookeeper, half exhibit, but it's clear that he was generally regarded as more of the latter than the former—particularly by his promoters, many of whom were renowned eugenicists. When African American leaders protested, everyone from well-respected scientists to the New York Times downplayed the outcry. The Times ran an editorial arguing that it was "absurd to make moan over the imagined […] degradation Benga is suffering. The pygmies are very low in the human scale." What made Ota so "entertaining" for millions of onlookers? This is a question whose answers spoke directly to the dialog of early 20th- century race relations, and award-winning journalist Newkirk presents them with clarity. VERDICT Newkirk gives us more than the tragic story of one Congolese man. She offers a look into the history of American eugenics and the concepts of racial anthropology that have served as the foundation for racial intolerance for generations. Benga's story is one part of a bigger problem—a problem that continues to exist—and Newkirk doesn't allow us to forget him. Nor should she.—Erin Entrada Kelly, Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Meet the Author

Pamela Newkirk is an award-winning journalist and a professor of journalism at New York University. She is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the National Press Club Award for media criticism, and the editor of Letters from Black America. She lives in New York City.

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Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
designonamac More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating and horrifying story. This is very well written and I highly recommend it. 
Anonymous 17 days ago