ota benga racism

RACISM: the man who was made to live in a zoo

In view of the recent killing of blacks in America, as well as the retaliatory attacks from blacks which ended up in the death of five policemen, I decided to share this little story from history which may be a significant lead to why Whites and Blacks may not have a convergence point to accept each other wholly. It all stems from the first impression the Whites had of Blacks and the treatment that Blacks have been getting from Whites from as far as 1904, when a black man – Ota Benga – was actually made to live in a zoo with other animals! 

In 1904, Ota Benga was kidnapped from Congo and taken to the US, where he was exhibited with monkeys. His appalling story reveals the roots of a racial prejudice that still haunts us.

In 1906, The New York Times reported that a young African man – a so-called “pygmy” – had been put on display in the monkey house of the city’s largest zoo. Under the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes”, the paper reported that crowds of up to 500 people at a time had gathered around the cage to gawk at the diminutive Ota Benga – just under 5ft tall, weighing 103lb – while he preoccupied himself with a pet parrot, deftly shot his bow and arrow, or wove a mat and hammock from bundles of twine placed in the cage. Children giggled and hooted with delight while adults laughed, many uneasily, at the sight.

In anticipation of larger crowds after the publicity in the New York Times, Benga was moved from a smaller chimpanzee cage to one far larger, to make him more visible to spectators. He was also joined by an orangutan called Dohang. While crowds massed to leer at him, the boyish Benga, who was said to be 23 but appeared far younger, sat silently on a stool, staring – sometimes glaring – through the bars.


A portrait of Ota Benga taken in Congo. His sharp teeth were the result of tooth chipping, a practice that was popular among young men. Photograph: American Museum of Natural History


Samuel P Verner took Benga captive in Congo and brought him back to the United States. Photograph: University of South Carolina

Read the full tragic story of Ota Benga HERE. Racism is evil, and we must all unite against it.

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