Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ota Benga, part 2, Pamela Newkirk's Spectacle

While September 1906 represented just one month in William T. Hornaday’s 82 years on this earth, it was the central event in Ota Benga’s tragic life story, which ended in suicide in a Virginia barn in 1916. Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle re-examines Ota Benga’s biography with great sensitivity to the isolation and humiliation that he endured in a foreign land so far from home. At the time, Ota Benga’s seemingly erratic behaviors were written up in sensationalized accounts as examples of his “savagery.” Newkirk points out that the behaviors Ota Benga exhibited were not unlike those demonstrated by individuals who had undergone extreme deprivation and torture. She restores his humanity and her book clearly replaces Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume Ota: The Pygmy in the Zoo (New York: Dell, 1992).

Indeed, Benga must have been a very challenging subject for a biographer. Unlike Hornaday who left tens of thousands of pages of published and unpublished documents (which presented challenges of a very different sort), Ota Benga left nothing. His life has to be pieced together from unreliable contemporary sources, such as newspapers and the writings of both Hornaday and Samuel Verner, Benga’s guardian, for lack of a better term. Besides sharing the common racial prejudices of time, newspapers published highly sensationalized accounts that reflected their dubious sources (i.e. Hornaday) for background information. Hornaday and Verner had too much self-interest invested to be objective; they wanted to create promotional stories and profit, not tell an accurate or unbiased account of Ota Benga’s life. As Newkirk points out, Verner was far from the most reputable character, and he deserves much blame for the abuse his charge suffered.   

What this book taught me is that I should have been much more suspicious of Hornaday’s version of the incident and his accounts of Ota Benga’s life and story in The Most Defiant Devil. Ultimately, however, I stand by my position on the events of September 1906, which is to say that Hornaday alone does not deserve all the blame for this terrible moment in the history of a great city and a great institution. Like many before me, I think I might have treated Ota Benga as too peripheral to the story. I am very grateful that Pamela Newkirk has filled a void by telling the story from perspective of Ota Benga.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ota Benga, part 1

I am happy to report that the “The Most Defiant Devil:” William Temple Hornaday and his Controversial Crusade to Save American Wildlife  has received some positive reviews in such scholarly publications as The Journal of American History, Annals of Iowa, Environmental History, Western Historical Quarterly, AAG, and CHOICE. In addition, a very favorable review by the Associated Press in late August 2013 was carried in papers nationwide, including my hometown Denver Post. Most reviewers commented that I presented a balanced view of William Temple Hornaday and did not shy from flaws, including his insidious racism. However, there was one rather negative review in the New York History that claims I should have devoted more space to the decision in 1906 to place African Ota Benga on display with the monkeys in the New York Zoological Park.
My decision to contain the story of this deplorable incident to two pages was motivated largely by considerations of page count as well as my intent to keep the focus on Hornaday the conservationist, hence the subtitle my biography. I will come back to one more reason in a moment.
In my brief coverage of the Ota Benga “incident” I wanted to call attention to two facts. First, Hornaday’s employers, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Madison Grant deserve as much, if not more, blame for the decision of placing Ota Benga on display in the Monkey House. Both men were themselves notorious racists who were just as eager as their director to boost gate receipts. Second, the idea of living “scientific specimens” was not unique to the New York Zoological Park in September 1906. Ota Benga had been on “display” previously at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. He was not the only African on “display” in St. Louis, nor were Africans the only people so exhibited at the exposition. At a time when the foremost men of science, like Henry Fairfield Osborn, used Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to promote racial hierarchy, including the concept that different peoples on the earth were in various stages of evolution, it not surprising that human beings were used as living object lessons at expositions and museums in the early decades of the 20th century. It was the provocative placement of Ota Benga in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo that makes September 1906 stand out as a particularly deplorable event. Surely, Hornaday was a racist, but his motivation was largely to boost attendance. A deeper discussion of scientific racism and humans on display was well outside the scope of The Most Defiant Devil, especially since Hornaday never adhered to the theory of scientific racism.
Finally, readers would be disappointed if they think that New Yorkers in 1906 condemned the zoo. In fact, this sensationalist stunt succeeded in drawing tens of thousands of paying New Yorkers to the zoo. Men of science defended the decision and powerful political leaders led by Mayor George B. McClellan backed the New York Zoological Society. In other words, the uncomfortable fact is that it was not as widely protested or condemned at the time as we in the 21st Century would like to believe. While posterity might remember Hornaday as the zoo director who displayed an human being in the Monkey House of his zoo, his reputation as the leading zoologist of his generation, foremost spokesperson on wildlife conservation, and undisputed expert in all fields relating to animals was undamaged among his contemporaries because of the events of September 1906. It was not a defining moment for Hornaday, it was a ripple in an otherwise long life.