Four decades after slavery ended in America, Ota Benga - a young man kidnapped from Congo and exported to America - was exhibited in a cage with African apes in a New York zoo. A black man exhibited in a cage in the 20th century, in the USA's most cosmopolitan city.
Though a small number of people complained bitterly, the editors of the New York Times were dismayed that anyone might protest against the display - which was wildly popular, and made headlines throughout the USA. The editors of the New York Times wrote, "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.” The man who exhibited Ota Benga, William Temple Hornaday, was America’s foremost zoologist, and a close acquaintance of President Theodore Roosevelt.
It’s a long read - and an harrowing, utterly heart-wrenching one, at that - but Ota Benga’s sad story reveals how deep the roots of racial prejudice and hatred in the USA really run. And it doesn't surprise me, then, to reflect how far the USA (and much of the rest of the world) still has to go when it comes to racial equality and empathy.
Samuel P Verner, the self-styled African explorer who took Benga from Congo, told a New York Times reporter that neither he nor the park would profit from the exhibition. “The public,” he insisted, “is the only beneficiary.” Verner further claimed that Benga was there of his own volition: “He is absolutely free … The only restriction that is put upon him is to prevent him from getting away from the keepers. That is done for his own safety.