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 Unlike Hornaday who left tens of thousands of pages of published and unpublished documents (which presented challenges of a very different sort), Ota Benga left nothing.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.

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