Courtland Milloy: Easter Monday at Zoo Does Not Honor African American Family

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If you visited the National Zoo on Monday and followed the signs that read "Meet a Gorilla" and the ones that read "Celebrate the African American Family," you'd end up pretty much in the same place. Toward the back entrance, you'd find apes playing in a yard at the Great Ape House and, on a smaller grassy enclave across from it, you'd see children at the black family gathering doing the same.

And you thought zoos were for viewing animals.

Welcome to Easter Monday at the zoo, with its annual exhibition of black people that originated 112 years ago.

"It's the celebration of a long tradition, something the African American community feels strongly about, something to be honored and something we want to keep invigorated," said Robert J. Lamb, executive director of the Friends of the National Zoo, a key sponsor of the event.

But why would anyone want their heritage celebrated at a zoo, especially black people? And it's not just the jarring incongruity of having blacks and beasts on display side by side.

Rooted in 19th-century racial oppression, Easter Monday began as a pseudo-holiday for black domestic workers whose white employers wouldn't let them have Easter Sunday off. And because blacks weren't allowed to attend the White House Easter Egg Roll the next day, they were allotted space on the zoo grounds to do their own thing.

If that deserves honoring, it's certainly not through a yearly reenactment of the crime under the guise of having a good time. You'd figure that the Smithsonian Institution, which runs the zoo, would have the gathering at a place where such black history could be put into proper perspective -- a museum, perhaps?

And you'd think black people -- having seen themselves listed on the zoo marquee as a featured attraction, right up there with the Giant Panda -- would have been offended enough to stop going long ago.

But no. Hundreds, if not thousands, showed up again this year.

"My great-grandfather used to come and bring his children, and they brought their children, and now I'm bringing mine," Keona Royal, 31, of Landover told me. "They used to have more picnics and grill more food and have more performances, but it's still a lot of fun."

But why not visit on another day? Why depend on organizations like FONZ to help us honor black history?

Not only can black people go to the zoo whenever they want to these days, we can also attend the White House Easter Egg Roll. And under the welcoming eye of a black president no less.

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