Monday, January 18, 2016
Book Review 359: Spectacle
Displaying unwilling humans is just about the oldest civilized activity. Wall paintings and bas-reliefs from earliest Egypt and Sumer depict captives being humiliated. The drive to do this has not noticeably diminished over 5,000 years.
March 20 will be the 100th anniversary of the suicide of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who was a big draw for gaping Americans at both the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and, two years later, in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo.
This is not merely a curious episode from a bygone age, when the most eminent figures in American anthropology conspired with a deranged South Carolina racist to kidnap and humiliate and make money from the misery of a small African. Not small only because he was a Pygmy but because he may have been a child. Pamela Newkirk, professor of journalism at New York University, shows that some of the leading institutions of today — including the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Zoological Society, the Smithsonian Institution and elite universities from Chicago to Dartmouth — are still lying, covering up and distorting their shameful part in the affair.
Newspapers, too, performed vilely, for the most part, although a few supported a band of mostly black ministers who fought for the freedom of Ota Benga.
It says a great deal about American morality that when Ota Benga was locked in a cage and shown for two bits a look that thousands of ordinary Americans thought it amusing to burn him with cigarettes, stone him and chase him. And that it did not seem to occur to the elite of New York that slavery was supposed to have been outlawed 40 years earlier.
It took a Scot, Rev. R.S. MacArthur, to point out to white racists what they were doing. Even after he did, many saw nothing wrong with it.
Ota Benga’s personal disaster was an episode of the great capitalist genocide in the Congo, which killed more people than died in Hitler’s Holocaust. Or Stalin’s destruction of the Ukrainian peasantry. Or Abdul Hamid’s slaughter of the Armenians.
All these famous atrocities were smaller (in terms of lives taken) and shorter than King Leopold II’s money-making enterprise; and if there is an omission in Newkirk’s retelling, it is the slight attention she pays to the American businessmen, including famous names like Guggenheim, who — long after a small band of moralists led by the English shipping agent E.D. Morel had exposed the atrocity — scrambled to get in on the slaughter.
On the other hand, Newkirk spends a lot of effort in portraying the educational and cultural infrastructure of African-Americans in the years after Emancipation. It is easy to see why; few Americans know anything about it and she is seizing a teachable moment, but the late pages of “Spectacle” drag as a result.
Still, she holds up a mirror and many an American of today should see himself in it and burn with shame.