Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

by Pamela Newkirk


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 Using primary historical documents, Pamela Newkirk traces Ota’s tragic life, from Africa to St. Louis to New York, and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062201027
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/06/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 235,094
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.77(d)

About the Author

Pamela Newkirk is an award-winning journalist and a professor of journalism at New York University. She is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the National Press Club Award for media criticism, and the editor of Letters from Black America. She lives in New York City.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xv

Preface xvii

Part I Caged

1 Gardens of Wonder 3

2 The Bronx Zoo Monkey House 11

3 Crimes of the Congo 18

4 Hornaday's Folly 24

5 Benga's Brigade 31

6 Fighting City Hall 40

7 Benga Speaks 50

8 Backlash 57

9 Nature's Fury 66

10 Deliverance 73

Part II Captured

11 Samuel Phillips Verner 79

12 Luebo Mission 87

13 Kondola, Kassongo. And Verner's African Treasures 97

14 The Hunt 108

15 Verner's Prey 117

16 The St. Louis World's Fair 128

17 Congo Field Notes 140

18 Leopold's Lobby 156

19 Benga's Choice 165

20 A Museum Most Unnatural 170

21 Fondless Farewell 182

Part III Free

22 Weeksville Refuge 189

23 St. James 205

24 Southern Comfort 216

25 Home 229

26 Free 236

27 Homegoing 241

Epilogue 249

Acknowledgments 255

Notes 259

Bibliography 287

Index 299

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Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
designonamac More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating and horrifying story. This is very well written and I highly recommend it. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A sad and fascinating story zoos don't want you to know. Well written and thoughtful.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This story hurt my heart. It speaks to unthinkable ignorance and malicious greed. To capture and humiliate a human being to this level and then promote lie after lie until the truth is obscured is criminal. The story is haunting
Anonymous More than 1 year ago