Pamela Newkirk is the author of “Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga.”
Last weekend, Virginia — one of three states in the country that prominently display a statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis in its capitol — unveiled a historical highway marker for Ota Benga, a Congolese native and Lynchburg resident who in 1906 garnered global headlines when he was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo monkey house.
The unveiling ceremony didn’t draw the kind of attention or acrimony that recently followed the promise to remove a Confederate monument in nearby Charlottesville. But it is nonetheless significant that an African man who was so monumentally degraded in the North has been recognized in the South, and in the bosom of the Confederacy, where he tragically died by suicide in 1916. The marker is near Virginia University of Lynchburg, where he briefly studied.
The marker, like Benga’s life, matters. It brings us face to face with a chapter of American history that had so long been sanitized and shrouded in mythology, half-truths and blatant deception. For nearly a century, the story of Benga’s tragic life was narrated by the very men who were most complicit in his degradation. In dozens of accounts — including one in a Virginia encyclopedia — the man most responsible for his exploitation was absurdly depicted as his friend.
The marker nudges us to reconcile our perceptions of an enlightened society with the fact that, at the dawn of the 20th century, a gentle, intelligent African who had been hunted and captured in the Congo was held against his will in a world-class city and displayed in a cage with an orangutan. It might compel us to consider what could inspire tens of thousands of wide-eyed New Yorkers to mindlessly gawk at him and inspire others to ignore his plight; and enable some of the nation’s most eminent men to support his exhibition. In defense of the shameful spectacle, a New York Times editorial read: “Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.” And 10 years later, the Times uncharitably reported Benga’s suicide under the headline “Ota Benga, Pygmy, Tired of America.” For its part, The Post wrote that “the call of the wild came to him.”
Only by recognizing who we have been and who we are can we hope to become who we wish to be.
Benga’s life continues to offer lessons for us today. A century later, behind the mass incarceration and senseless police killings of black and brown boys and men, we might detect the same kind of crude stereotyping that served to dehumanize Ota Benga. We might also draw parallels between the ways national leaders disparaged Africans and the ways some deride immigrants today.
Through the lens of Benga’s life, we’re also reminded that, in the midst of his degradation, a handful of decent Americans, black and white, defied the conventions of their day to come to his aid. In New York he found refuge in a black orphanage but was also defended by the prominent white pastor of Calvary Baptist Church.
During a dark period of national division and despair, the Lynchburg ceremony offers a glimmer of light. The unveiling was attended by the mayor, a state official, the deputy chief of the Congolese Embassy and a multiracial array of citizens for whom the marker denotes their ideals. As Lynchburg honored the humanity of a misfortunate exile, it affirmed its own.