The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Book - 2015
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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 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 Using primary historical documents, Pamela Newkirk traces Ota's tragic life, from Africa to St. Louis to New York, and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his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.

Publisher: New York :, Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers,, 2015
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780062201003
Branch Call Number: 921 BEN
Characteristics: xvi, 297 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, portraits ; 24 cm


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Jun 30, 2018

Loved the style of this book. Half narrative of Obenga's incredibly tragic life half history of Leopold's genocide at the turn of the 20th century in the Congo and history of post reconstruction Jim Crow America. The book itself takes place in an interesting time and frames of shifting white supremacist values of the time more accurately than many things I've read. You see the dying of the old southern confederation racism. That is the politics of groups like the KKK, and their dream of re-enslavement and a return to the antebellum American South. This contrasts with the scientific white supremacy of the founders of modern zoological and anthropology. Men like Madison Grant (the man who internationalized the racist pseudoscience of "Eugenics" and deeply influenced the worldview of early Nazism and Hitler himself) to Henry Ford all the way to TDR had a hand in the capture and display of this man zoo's and fairs all throughout America. At a time when these politics are rearing their ugly head again this book gives a clear and disturbing picture about the world those ideas were born in.

SnoIsleLib_BrianH Jun 02, 2017

The author Pamela Newkirk presents the shameful episode first thing in this book. Immediately reading about Ota Benga's plight captured my attention. --Two years after an appearance at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, Ota Benga was brought to the New York Zoological Park (better known as the Bronx Zoo), where he was locked in a cage with an orangutan before a jeering throng. -- What follows is Newkirk's thorough research into the back story of Ota Benga and the numerous characters that were culpable. Any mystery or murkiness surrounding Ota Benga's story and this media sensation from the turn of the 19th century are brought to light.

Jun 28, 2015

This book does not restrict itself solely to Ota Benga's mistreatment and subsequent life but shifts focus to what was going on in Central Africa (especially King Leopold's treatment of fellow Africans) at this time.

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Jun 30, 2018

ABou1391 thinks this title is suitable for 13 years and over


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