African Pygmy Once Caged With Orangutan in Bronx Zoo?

Ota Benga
Ota Benga

*I’ll be the first to admit: you can’t believe everything you read. And I, for one, really hope this story below about an African man who was, at one time, kept in a place now known as the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan–for entertainment purposes–is just one of those things.

But I found it an interesting story, and not totally unbelievable based on the shameful history of this country.

So here it goes.

The man’s name was Ota Benga. He was a Congolese pygmy,  stood 4 feet 11 inches, and weighed a petite 103 lbs.  It is said that he was brought to America and was put into a cage with an orangutan at the New York Zoological Gardens—now known as the Bronx Zoo.

People would come to see this attraction daily, in numbers that easily reached 40,000. It was billed as the “savage” from Africa caged with monkeys.

And its not like this happened that long ago. Not like “slavery days” long ago. It is actually said to have happened in 1904 in the “progressive” New York.

The Daily Mail reports that Ota’s teeth had been filed down into razor sharp points, as was the custom of his Congo tribe. And the zoo took full advantage of this by using it to promote their prize.

They had a “genuine African savage” on display that had the teeth of an animal with which he could ravage his prey.

The New York Times featured a headline, “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes.” And Ota was billed as “an exotic beast.”

And any white person with twenty-five cents could pile in to see “it.”

And they did.

Even more disturbing were the “scientists” who billed Ota as the “missing link” that connected our species to the ape. Ota was used by scientists to contribute to the many racially stained pseudo-sciences that depict the inferiority of blacks. Many of those untruths endure to this day.

The exhibit lasted until a campaign by a group of black clergymen  exposed it for the blatant racism it was and went on a campaign that eventually succeeded in the exhibit being shut down.

Ota was released and placed in an orphanage; then placed in a home because his Congo family had either been killed or fled. His attempts to adjust to his new life, after such severe treatment, were futile. And in 1916, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart.

He is said to be buried in an unmarked grave in New York.

Ota Benga was a human being treated by America as a side-show. This was not during a time when Americans “legally” viewed blacks as cattle and property. This was many years after slavery.  This was after the Emancipation and after the Civil War. Yet, the savagery of American culture allowed this beautiful soul—a human being—to be caged with animals and put on display for the enjoyment and entertainment of white America. All of this in the “liberal” bastion of New York City.

Thanks to My Black World for excerpts of this story.

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