Book of the Week: Spectacle – Pamela Newkirk

When I was selling in this book, some store buyers told me that this story had been told before. But every story is new to someone—and this one was shockingly new to me. I’m happy to see that strong reviews have welcomed Newkirk’s new scholarship on this shameful true story of a pygmy man imprisoned with an orangutan as an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo Monkey House.

Newkirk’s new telling also provides a strong narrative about the unexpected twists and turns in Ota Benga’s life, including his final years as a free man—but it’s a damning indictment of scientific and cultural arrogance that sometimes doesn’t seem much improved over 100 years later.

Earlier this week, the NYT covered this book and drew a connection between Ota Benga’s story and a current New York State Supreme Court case about whether two caged chimpanzees at Stony Brook University can be defined as legal persons, and are therefore being unlawfully held against their will. One wonders what Americans 100 years from now will conclude about us from the results of that case.

The Times calls Spectacle “engrossing” and says that Newkirk “fleshes [out the story] with a chilling human dimension and rich anthropological perspective.”

Newkirk centers this meticulously detailed monograph on the life of Ota Benga, a young Congolese man who at the beginning of the 20th century suffered the indignity of being caged with an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House. Although Benga himself left no written record of his experiences, Newkirk pieces together his story from the texts, photographs, and other records produced by the ‘lettered elite’ whose members were complicit in his capture and display….Benga’s experience was unusual because it took place not in a ‘human zoo’ but in one devoted to animals, thus depicting this African man not simply as exotic, but as a failure of human evolution. Newkirk places Benga’s story in the context of an ever more segregated and aggressively racist United States, a Europe intent on exploitation of Africa’s human and material resources, and a scientific culture that venerated objective inquiry but refused to question established ideas about race.”
— Publishers Weekly

“Newkirk gives us more than the tragic story of one Congolese man. She offers a look into the history of American eugenics and the concepts of racial anthropology that have served as the foundation for racial intolerance for generations. Benga’s story is one part of a bigger problem–a problem that continues to exist–and Newkirk doesn’t allow us to forget him.”
— Library Journal

“[A] young African taken from his home for the purposes of Western science throws into relief the turn-of-the-century’s ill-conceived intentions and prejudice….Newkirk has to fill in many blank spaces in this wrenching story of Ota Benga—his name would be spelled a dozen different ways over the course of his short life—who was eventually ‘rescued’ by the director of an African-American orphanage in Brooklyn, with the aim of educating him to become a missionary to be sent back to Africa. Specifically, Benga never told his own story, so Newkirk has pursued the villain, Samuel Phillips Verner, a South Carolina–born racist who became a minister and went to Africa, only to ingratiate himself with the officials of King Leopold’s Belgium Congo in plundering African artifacts (sold to the Smithsonian and other American institutions) and preying on native tribes. The “diminutive forest people” would be his particular prize, first conveyed for exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.”
— Kirkus Reviews

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (9780062201003) Pamela Newkirk. $25.99 hardcover. 6/2/15 on sale.

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