By Shannon Geary, Features Editor
The story of Ota Benga is one of tragedy, loss, humiliation, and the darkest parts of popular culture. The viewing of the harrowing, award-winning documentary “Ota Benga: Human at the Zoo,” directed by University of Missouri—St. Louis Endowed Professor of African and African-American Studies ‘Niyi Coker, Jr. and Jean Bodon, left its audience in stunned silence. On April 20 at 2 p.m. a collection of students, staff, and faculty gathered in the J.C. Penney Auditorium to learn of the Congolese man stolen from his home in the early 1900s.
The solemn event began with opening remarks from Dr. Sheilah Clarke-Ekong, associate professor of anthropology. On Coker she said, “His work spans generations, it spans centuries…That is his quest, to tell our own stories and to make them relevant to our situations that we find ourselves in.”
The documentary told the story of Benga with pictures, animations, and drawings. The story began in the Congo when Benga, a Congolese pygmy, returning from a hunt with relatives, found his village razed and deserted, all of the women and children gone. When he discovered that his wife and two children had been brutally murdered by the Belgium Force Publique, the colonial power in the Congo, Benga attacked an officer. He was arrested and put up for auction.
At the same time in America, the president of the American Anthropological Association, W.J. McGee, hired an agent, Samuel Phillips Verner, to go to the Congo and procure pygmies to be exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Verner pulled some strings and got himself ordained as a Presbyterian minister in three days so that he could join a mission to the Congo who would pay all of his traveling expenses.
Benga’s purchase from the Congo and display at the fair was part of a larger misunderstanding of Darwin’s evolutionary theories. The European and American peoples of the time believed that all humans could be placed on an evolutionary scale with white people at the top and indigenous peoples below. For more information, see our article “Broader Historical Picture of 1904 World’s Fair” online at thecurrent-online.com.
When the fair ended, Verner took Benga back to the Congo, but both returned to the U.S. shortly after. Verner dropped off Benga at the American Museum of Natural History in New York where he was not allowed to leave museum premises. During a party, the wife of a wealthy donor made a snarky comment and Benga, completely fed up, tossed a chair at her head. While his aim was off, the director of the museum contacted Verner and demanded that Benga be removed from the museum.
Next, Verner left Benga at the Bronx Zoo where he turned into a great financial success. The zoo director kept Benga in the monkey house where he was teased and laughed at continually by guests. While at the zoo, a Baptist reverend, James H. Gordon, organized a resistance to Benga’s imprisonment. At first, the mayor of New York ignored all requests. However, Benga got hold of a knife and tried to slash a keeper. The mayor remained silent. Benga then fashioned a small bow and arrow and shot at the particularly mean visitors. At this point, his violence outweighed the financial gain and the zoo returned Benga to Verner.
Verner then handed Benga to Gordon who placed him in a “Colored Orphan Asylum.” Four years later he was sent to a seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia as the reverend believed he could be taught; not all Africans were believed capable of education. Despite their hopes, Benga did not fit in well and eventually dropped out and got a job at a nearby tobacco factory.
In 1916, Benga died of a bullet wound to the chest. It is believed that he was 32 years old and committed suicide, although neither of these can be sufficiently proven. Benga was buried in an unmarked grave, possibly to throw off grave robbers and “scientists” who wished to have his body and brain for racist experiments.
The documentary ended by asserting that actions like those taken against Ota Benga can happen even nowadays as white European lives are still seen as worth more than black African lives.
After the film Dr. Susan Brownell, professor of anthropology, presented a PowerPoint presentation on the larger social context of Benga’s life. Next, a panel discussion was held with Amy Hunter, social justice advocate and leader of the Witnessing Whiteness dialogue group at the YWCA, Dr. Sarah Lacy, assistant professor of anthropology, and Clarke-Ekong.
Hunter and Lacy both stressed the importance of the film in terms of today’s political climate and race relations. Lacy, a biological anthropologist, asserted that race does not exist biologically but does exist socially and so must be approached in a social way. Questions from the audience had all three panelists encouraging people to get up and do something about the racism in our society and the world at large.