The Ota Benga Exploit



“Zoo: An excellent place to study the habits of human beings”-Evan Esar

Bret Easton Ellis stated in American Psycho: “Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do?” This is a question that we all could spend a lifetime trying to figure out an answer to, but nevertheless it is in fact a profound inquiry for the ages. We often times hear of barbaric acts committed against human beings by other human beings that borders on the fringe of the demonic. Often I search for signs of the humanitarian, hoping that the philanthropist is not just a seedy way to describe how the wealthy people try to offset their tax returns, but is in fact a sign that people truly are above the barbaric food chain and are civilized in both their hearts and in their common nature. Yet still I find myself peering out into a world where truth is inevitable. It is the kind of truth that suggests that even in our most humane and in our most civil obedience, that the nature of mankind can still be inherently evil. To borrow a quote from one of my favorite cartoons, Thundarr The Barbarian: “Man’s civilization is cast in ruin. Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn. A strange new world rises from the old. A world of savagery, super-science, and sorcery”.  Well maybe the two thousand years later part does not apply, however most of that statement is applicable to these modern times. Civilization in all of its modernization and newfangled advancements, still showers itself in the reigns of savagery and sorcery. It is not the type of sorcery we equate with Harry Potter or the savage labels attached to barbarians like Odoacer; but it is the nevertheless within the same context. Today’s sorcery is the mythical media that utilizes its magical potion to contort and mold the minds of the masses, as they view the regurgitated, savage exploits of politicians, policeman, unruly citizens, cultural exploitation and graphic degradation. We are in a time of the exploited voyeur who watches as the show goes on, buying a ticket to the next thrilling moment in spite of its damaging effect on society. It is indeed a minstrel act, often at the cost of depicting a minority (minority in this case being gender and ethnicity) in squalor and destitute and often times portraying them as being belligerent.  My quote from Thundarr The Barbarian stated:  “A strange new world rises from the old”.  This is indeed more fact than fiction as I was given a piece of historical information by a good friend of mine regarding a Congolese man named Ota Benga. You see Ota Benga was a man purchased during the slave trade by Samuel Phillips Verner who was noted for being a hunter of Africans in order to exploit them at exhibitions as primitive beings within the chain of human evolution.  Ota Benga was brought to the United States of America by Samuel Phillips Verner, who would then put Ota Benga on display in the Bronx Zoo’s “Monkey House” as an exhibit. It is said that Ota Benga had “free” run of the grounds when on and off display, but nevertheless this was indeed his place of dwelling.  Part of Ota Benga’s performances included shooting a bow and arrow at targets and performing acts with an orangutan named Dohong. Ota Benga’s display was thought to be a profitable staple act at the Bronx Zoo and was supported by the New York Zoological Society in spite of protests claiming that the Bronx Zoo was indeed treating Ota Benga as if he was lesser than human. The temperament of the times were reflected in a New York Times editorial stating that “pygmies are very low in the human scale” and that it was nonsensical to believe that it was outlandish to display Ota Benga as a sideshow exhibit for viewing.  It would take mounting public pressure before Ota Benga’s would eventually be removed from the display at the zoo in order to try to obtain a normal life. He would try to fit into society while trying to seek a formal education. He would become employed as a tobacco factory worker, but the lure of wanting to return to his native Congo lurked inside his mind often to the point that it would lead to depression and his eventual suicide once learning that his return was impossible.  As I channel this piece into the now we live in, we see people’s lives being displayed in front of camera as a form of entertainment. We bear witness to the spectacle of the downtrodden and the apparent evil doers that commit heinous acts. This is a learned practice taken from a time thought to be less civilized and less empathetic, yet we find ourselves revisiting a time reenactment from an era of savagery and sorcery. Our “Bronx Zoo” is now being televised by way of satellite transmission. Our humanitarianism sits in the same spot as our remote controls; yet the suicide of one’s life is still be committed right in front of our very eyes. Ota Benga was a sideshow for the ticket buyers. Ota Benga a communicator with the animals of the wild. Ota Benga dwelled himself as a man of the wild. But most important Ota Benga was made into something lesser than human for the pure entertainment of others. It was not until someone decided that enough was enough and thought that he deserved to be treated decent and humane that his life changed. This is something I rhetorically propose to my readers today. When are we going to say that enough is enough?  When will we speak up when we see that people are being treated as less than human?  Is evil something we do or is evil something we stand by and let happen without trying to stop it. I’ll let you be the judge and be the conscious of your habits when the next time you decide to visit the zoo. #the zookeeper

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