Kim McLarin is the author of three novels and the memoir “Divorce Dog: Men, Motherhood and Midlife.” She is an associate professor in the department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College.

Spectacle
The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

By Pamela Newkirk

Amistad. 297 pp. $25.99

One Saturday morning in September 1906, a young, diminutive man named Ota Benga was put on exhibit at the primate house at the New York Zoological Gardens in the Bronx. At 4 feet 11 inches and approximately 103 pounds, Benga was a native of what was then known as the Congo Free State. For the next three weeks New Yorkers flocked to the zoo to gawk at and harass the “pygmy” from Africa. During that time he went from local curiosity to cause celebre to international news.

This strange and shameful slice of American history is the subject of Pamela Newkirk’s compelling new book, “Spectacle.” For those familiar with the history of human exhibitions in Europe; the U.S. eugenics movement and other pseudo-sciences in the early 20th century; and the sad tale of Saartjie Baartman, the 19th-century South African woman exhibited across Europe as the “Hottentot Venus,” Benga’s story may not be astonishing. But it is heartbreaking.

‘Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga’ by Pamela Newkirk (Amistad)

Benga was brought to the United States in 1904 by Samuel Phillips Verner, the ambitious, unstable scion of an aristocratic South Carolina family that had owned slaves. After making his way to Africa as a missionary, Verner soon cast off religious aspirations and replaced them with commercial ones. In time, he managed to land a commission from organizers of the St. Louis World’s Fair (including the National Geographic Society and the American Anthropological Society) to provide human exhibits. Or, rather, to offer “certain natives the opportunity of attending the Exposition in person.”

Scholars have largely documented Baartman’s journey from Cape Town to Europe (she told abolitionists working to help her that she came of her own accord, but her choices were severely limited). But Newkirk is unable to confirm the true circumstances of Benga’s journey to America with Verner. Was Benga captured? Bought? Enticed? All we have is Verner’s self-aggrandizing word, which changed like the tide.

Verner gave varying and conflicting accounts of his meeting with Benga. In one version, written for Harper’s Weekly, Verner claimed he found Benga when Benga was being held captive by the Baschilele tribe, which Verner said (against other evidence) was cannibalistic. In another version, he said he found Benga with fellow members of his tribe near their settlement and arranged with the chief to bring Benga to America. In yet another retelling, he claimed to have encountered Benga being held by troops of the Belgian-ruled government. Benga, he said, elected to travel with him upon being offered employment.

As Newkirk writes: “The descriptions of their encounter would continue to change over the years. The only consistent themes were the threat of cannibals and Verner’s role as Benga’s savior.”

The author makes clear that whatever the truth of Benga and Verner’s meeting, Benga and his fellow Congelese forest-dwellers were highly vulnerable to men like Verner. Under the mercenary and brutal rule of Belgian King Leopold II, Congo had become a blood-soaked land of exploitation, enslavement and mass mutilation. Leopold extracted a fortune in ivory and rubber from Congo and, through the feared gendarmarie known as the Force Publique, caused millions of deaths. Verner moved untouched and unconcerned through this nightmarish terrain, “hunting pygmies,” protected by Belgian and American support, Newkirk writes.

“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 (a theory proposing different origins for people of different races), middle-class African American life in New York, and yellow journalism. The reader is given full bios not only of the primary and secondary actors in Benga’s brief life but also of many tertiary ones. This slows down the narrative, especially at the beginning of the book, when the overload of facts, figures and background information about marginal people and institutions seems less like context and more like delay. But the book picks up steam once New York’s black clergy lead a protest against Benga’s exhibition. What happens as a result of that protest and the sad, ensuing trajectory of Benga’s life are sharply told.

One critical voice missing from “Spectacle” is, of course, Benga’s. Though he eventually learned to speak broken English, he left behind no letters or journals to enlighten us about his thoughts or feelings about his ordeal. This silence lies at the heart of much of the African experience in the New World, a silence that keeps the reality of that experience muted in American history. In his masterpiece, the epic poem “Middle Passage,” Robert Hayden addresses the problem not by attempting to enter the minds of the enslaved Africans but rather by letting their very voicelessness speak with the sound of thunder. Africans emerge at center stage as Hayden gives voice to everyone else — traders, a slave-ship crewman, a crew-member survivor of the rebellion on the Amistad.

Newkirk proceeds differently. In trying valiantly to fill the void, she missteps. For example, she stretches to describe the Bronx Zoo madness from Benga’s point of view: “He did not initially comprehend their language but could feel both the sting of their scorn and the pang of their pity. In their wide eyes he could see his humanity, like one’s image in a fun house mirror, monstrously distorted.” Fictionalizing the experience in this way has the unintended effect of distancing us from the real and unknowable Benga rather than drawing us near. Newkirk further tries to bridge the emotional gap by quoting extensively from research on the psychological effects of shame and trauma, and on depression, but this technique is neither particularly effective nor necessary. It is enough to tell the tale.