I’m always intrigued by harrowing, unbelievable true-life stories, and have really been in a non-fiction groove lately, so Spectacle by Pamela Newkirk is a book that fit the bill. From Goodreads:
In 1904, Ota Benga, a young Congolese “pygmy”—a person of petite stature—arrived from central Africa and was featured in an anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, the New York Zoological Gardens displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, 4-foot-11-inch tall man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe. Spectacle explores the circumstances of Ota Benga’s captivity, the international controversy it inspired, and his efforts to adjust to American life. It also reveals why, decades later, the man most responsible for his exploitation would be hailed as his friend and savior, while those who truly fought for Ota have been banished to the shadows of history. Using primary historical documents, Pamela Newkirk traces Ota’s tragic life, from Africa to St. Louis to New York, and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his short life.
The first parts of Spectacle lived up to its subtitle—astonishing. I was blown away by how brazen the Americans were in their arrogance and sense of authority over this fellow human being. The blatant lack of humanity reflected in the horrific conditions Ota Benga faced in captivity—no one deserves this shameful treatment, especially from another person. Who was really “barbaric” here? I felt so sad for Ota Benga, even at the end when he was “free” but having a life where he didn’t really belong anywhere, not in Africa or America.
I thought Newkirk does a good job putting the story of Ota Benga’s captivity into social and historical contexts of racial prejudice in the United States. It makes you think about how we treat other people today in 2015—we might not put someone in a zoo, but we do humiliate others, force them to do things or be in the public spotlight against their will, media consumption of private matters (celebrities, politicians), children on reality TV, etc. And look at our incarceration rates, too.
However, as fascinating as Spectacle‘s premise and topic was, the writing was somewhat dry and at times it was hard to stay engaged with the audiobook. Often I felt Spectacle was more about Samuel P. Verner, the scheming man who captured Ota Benga, instead of Ota Benga himself. That said, these are pretty minor quibbles—this is absolutely an important piece of social American history we need to acknowledge. If you enjoyed books like Devil in the White City and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks this would be up your alley, too.
Listened to audiobook from June 29 to July 3, 2015.