Pamela Newkirk, Ph.D, an award winning journalist, professor, and director of Undergraduate Studies at New York University, has written a groundbreaking book that explores a young African male’s exploitation due to white supremacist ideology.
‘Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga,’ is a true life tragedy of a 103-pound, four-foot eleven Congolese man known as a pygmy. who was captured and caged as an exhibit twice; first at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, second in a monkey house at the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan. The shameful demonstration reached international attention and enhanced the evolution of bad science and racial ideologies that still continues today.
Amazon.com had this to say about this outstanding book –
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.
lluminating 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.
Newkirk spoke about her book on the PBS program ‘Miller Center’s American Forum’ on the topic “When Black Lives Didn’t Seem to Matter” which aired Dec. 9, 2015. I was fortunate enough to share her thoughts via email about her book and how it relates to today’s issues affecting Black lives.
“In some ways Ota Benga is a metaphor for the many innocent young African Americans today who too often are hunted, captured, caged en masse and sometimes killed,” Newkirk said. “In 1906 and now, Black people have had to assert that their lives matter against overwhelming evidence that to the larger society, they do not.”
“In 1904 Ota Benga was captured in the Congo to bring to the United States to exhibit in the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, he was exhibited at the Bronx Zoo. Tens of thousands of people flocked to the zoo to see him as he sat in stupefied silence in a locked cage. When ministers protested the mayor refused to intervene and zoo officials ignored demands to halt the exhibit.”
Newkirk commented on the comparison in mass incarceration. “Ota Benga’s captivity – like the mass incarceration of young Blacks today – could not have happened without the complicity of a large segment of the population. Today many young Blacks are incarcerated at low-level drug offenses that few whites would serve time for.”
On police brutality – “We see the same routine disregard for Black lives when officers are not prosecuted in the senseless killing of unarmed victims. So the racial attitudes that enabled eminent men of New York to exhibit a young African in a monkey house cage linger still.”
“The Black Lives Matter Movement has highlighted the persistent and indefensible structural inequities and have raised the conscience of a nation,” Newkirk continued. “Members of Congress and presidential candidates are finally conceding the need for criminal justice reform.”
Pamela Newkirk’s book won the 2016 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Non-Fiction.