Printer Friendly

Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo.

Racism in America: The books have been stacking up - a mountain since the Los Angeles riots of a year and a half ago. Some, like Cornel West's Race Matters and Studs Terkel's Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, have deservedly achieved niches on the bestseller lists.

I find it upsetting to be forced by the reality around me and the documentation in these books to face facts. Growing up in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, being raised in a home defined by love rather than hate, I felt achieving ideals was possible. I watched on television, as an adolescent, the bloody but successful struggles to end legal discrimination and I played my own small roles now and then. It was possible to believe - as I did in, say, 1965 at age seventeen - that I would live to see the end of racism.

Now I am certain I won't. I look around me and think things are worse, not better. Like so many others who take the time to puzzle out why, I've been - well - puzzled.

Then I read Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, published without much fanfare in 1992 by St. Martin's Press. Ota Benga was a pygmy in his early twenties - a human being, mind you - purchased somewhere in the Congo by Samuel Phillips Verner to become part of a display at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Later, briefly in 1906. he was housed in a cage at the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan named Dohong.

Verner knew the Congo well from his days there as a Presbyterian missionary in the late 1890s. He was the well-bred grandson of slave owners, one of whom is remembered for single-handedly turning aside a column of Sherman's cavalry on its slash-and-burn journey to the sea, and the son of a member of South Carolina's 1876 roll-back-Reconstruction legislature.

He was also the grandfather of Phillips Verner Bradford, who wrote this book in collaboration with Harvey Blume, a Boston writer. Their story encompasses the lives of both Verner and Ota Benga, and it is fascinating. I turned the pages eagerly - but with a sickening feeling growing ever stronger in the pit of my stomach.

It would be bad enough if turn-of-the-century New York hadn't come out in droves to see the pygmy in the zoo. It would be bad enough, too, if New Yorkers were somehow under the impression that the man in the cage wasn't a man but some sort of animal higher than apes, a "missing link." But a verse published in The New York Times on September 19, 1906, sets that record straight:

"From his native land of darkness to the country of the free in the interest of science and of broad humanity brought wee little Ota Benga dwarfed, benighted, without guile scarcely more than ape or monkey yet a man the while!"

And it would be bad enough if Ota Benga had been the only human put on display. He was alone at the Bronx Zoo, but not at the St. Louis Fair. Limned in this book in a colorful way that makes you feel as if you've been there yourself, the story of the fair speaks volumes.

In an attempt to outdo the world's fairs held in Paris in 1889 and Chicago in 1893, to live up to the popular song composed to draw crowds ("Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,/ Meet me at the fair,/ Don't tell me lights are shining/ Any place but there."), fair organizers came up with a Ferris Wheel with thirty-six cars holding sixty people each, the "largest representation of an animal paradise ever constructed" - Carl Hagenbeck's Circus - and also an "anthropology" exhibit of "representatives of all the world's races," living "in simulations of their own natural habitats."

Geronimo was there, having finally given up his battle with the U.S. Army and said, "I give myself up to you. Do with me what you please. I surrender. Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all." Temporarily out of confinement at Fort Sill, the eighty-year-old Apache sat in a little booth at the fair, an armed guard nearby, being gawked at as he made and sold bows and arrows. Also on display were several thousand other Native Americans from all over North and South America. There were Turks making scimitars, Zulus reenacting battle scenes of the Boer War, natives of the recently conquered Philippines, Eskimos, Patagonian "giants," Ainu aborigines from Japan, and more.

And how were they treated while the world gawked? "Authenticity was all," Bradford and Blume tell us. "The Eskimos, [the Anthropology Department] boasted, did not need to take off their fur coats even in the stifling heat of St. Louis summer. As for the pygmies, when chill, damp weather arrived in the fall, anthropologists were ready to protect them from their ill-considered impulses to take measures against the cold. |It required constant vigilance and half-cruel constraint to keep the pygmies out of close-fitting clothing,' wrote the anthropologists."

Consider that these events took place less than ninety years ago, that co-author Bradford, not much older than I am, is only two generations removed from the man who bought Ota Benga and put him on display. When I add to this book my recollection of reading Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, which concerns intelligence testing and racial attitudes and deals in large part with the same historical period, I think: It's depressing that we haven't made more progress on racial attitudes, but attitudes of superiority this deeply ingrained in white people can't be shed in two generations.

We must try harder. I am reminded of something Studs Terkel said in his interview with The Progressive (July 1992 issue). He was talking about how the rioters in Los Angeles knew more about the people of Simi Valley than the Simi Valley people knew about them - which, he said, "is a long tradition of servants and masters. You know Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.... Jimmy Baldwin wrote a book called Nobody Knows My Name. The subtitle could easily have been But I Know Yours."

Until more whites realize that they need to try harder to understand blacks, we won't see much progress.

Thinking about Ota Benga led me back to a book edited by Herbert Hill (a member of The Progressive's Editorial Advisory Board) and James E. Jones Jr. - Race in America: The Struggle for Equality (University of Wisconsin Press). It's a collection of essays by such writers as Julius Chambers, Kenneth Clark, Derrick Bell, and Eddie Williams, and a section subtitled "The Persistence of Discrimination" is particularly compelling.

In a different section, though, is an essay by Patricia Williams that opens with an anecdote that tells us white folks some things we need to know.

"I am new to Madison," she begins. Williams was joining the faculty of the University of Wisconsin Law School, and she was looking for an apartment. It resonated, because I've been "new to Madison" myself, when I came here eight years ago to work at The Progressive. But our experiences were not the same.

"I found an advertisement for a two-bedroom apartment ... not far from the law school, and at one-thirty on a Saturday afternoon, I called and made an appointment to see it. The woman on the other end of the line sounded very friendly; I told her about myself and she said I sounded perfect (i.e., quiet, single, middle-aged professor with cats). She described the apartment as having a fireplace, 1,200 squire feet, and a sunroom. We agreed to meet at the apartment at three o'clock. At three I showed up; at five minutes after three I saw her catch sight of me as I sat on the doorstep. I saw her slow down; I saw her walk slower and slower, squinting at me as I sat in the sunshine. At ten minutes after three, I was back in my car driving away without having seen the apartment. The woman had explained to me that a |terrible mistake' had occurred, that the apartment had been rented without her knowledge to |a man who can lift heavy boxes and shovel snow in the winter.'

"When I got back to the law school, I mentioned it to my colleague, Professor Linda Greene, also a black woman and also new to Madison. I told her of my suspicions and hurt feelings. As I recounted the scenario, Linda started finishing my sentences for me: |Twelve hundred square feet?' she interjected. |Little white windowsills? Fireplace and hardwood floors?' As it turned out, Linda had visited the same apartment two weeks earlier. She, too, had been turned away when she showed up. She, too, had been told that there had been a |terrible mistake,' that the place had already been rented."

Nothing like this has ever happened to me; not when I was new to Madison, not when I was new to anyplace. I've tried to imagine what it would feel like, but I'm sure I'll never know. I don't intend to carry this curiosity to the extremes that John Howard Griffin did to write Black Like Me, first published in 1961, but I understand how the obsession might arise.

Griffin's book is worth a trip to the library, by the way. A white Texan who had himself injected with a substance that turned his skin dark, he traveled the Jim Crow South in the late 1950s to discover for himself what it was like "to be a Negro."

For the sheer delight of the off-beat knowledge gained, and the sheer delight of good writing, I'm glad I picked up In An Antique Land, by Amitav Ghosh (Knopf). It's the story of two Indians in Egypt. The first was a Twelfth Century slave. Ghosh, who stumbled upon traces of the slave's existence in the margins of letters written by or to the man's Jewish merchant master, is the second. He went to Egypt in 1980, to a tiny village, to begin a search for the slave's life story. It took ten years, and this beautiful book - which the jacket accurately describes as "a subversive history in the guise of a traveler's tale" - is the result. It is Ghosh's personal story interspersed with exotic descriptions of what was going on in Palestine, Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and India, circa the year 1148, when the first letter Ghosh found, later deposited in the master's synagogue in Cairo, was written.

It's the kind of book you'd have no idea you'd want to read until you opened it to Page 1 and found you couldn't put it down. Another like that for me this year was The Mezuzah in the Madonna's Foot, by Trudi Alexy (Simon & Schuster). Subtitled Oral Histories Exploring 500 Years in the Paradoxical Relationship of Spain and the Jews, the book first deserves an explanation of its bizarre title. During the Inquisition, Alexy writes, "when a Marrano (Secret Jew) kissed the foot of the Madonna by his front door, who would have guessed that a mezuzah (a small tube containing a parchment scroll of Biblical passages) was concealed in the foot?"

Many of Alexy's oral histories are interviews with people involved in one way or another with the smuggling of Jews over the Pyrennees from Nazi-occupied France into Spain - a past Alexy shares with her subjects. Nina Mitrani managed to smuggle herself, alone, as a young woman in 1941. Now sixty-five and living in Barcelona, she talked with Alexy about the myth that Francisco Franco helped the Jews.

Admitting the partial truth behind the myth, she says, "But during the early part of the war Franco was a Fascist, a great friend of Hitler and of the Italians, and he did not lift a finger to help the Jews. After 1943, things changed. Franco was afraid Hitler was not going to win the war. He was no fool, Franco. But I cannot forget that for a long time this was a Fascist country. When officials came into the prisons and gave the Nazi salute, those who did not salute back had their hair cut off. While I was at Figueras prison we had to salute like a Nazi every morning when they came in. I did not want to do it, but the others all whispered, |Do it, raise your hand, raise your hand, or they will cut off your hair.'"

Lisa Fittko, an Austrian Jew who made it to France, was a smuggler of people, guiding them across the mountains in the early 1940s for the Emergency Rescue Committee, the group that smuggled Andre Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, and many others into Spain. She tells the story here of her harrowing trek guiding Walter Benajamin, a Jewish-German writer and philosopher who had spent time in a concentration camp with Fittko's husband.

Trudi Alexy spoke with sixty people on three continents to compile this book. Discovering her own kinship with the Marranos, she finds descendants on Majorca "who, after centuries of secrecy, have recently made tentative moves to embrace their Judaism openly," and she seeks out a group of the descendants of Marranos who followed Columbus to the New World. Nearly 500 years later, they survive in the American Southwest as "Crypto-Jews" maintaining Christian covers. Their story is also here.

All right, Linda, lighten up. Yes, I read almost my usual quotient of mystery novels in 1993, and I have a plan for 1994.

The University of North Carolina Press recently sent me a review copy of Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond, by Marleen S. Barr. What looks at first glance like a typical lit-crit, academic study is really a delight. Not being a science-fiction fan - the only stuff I read is by Ursula Le Guin, and she's represented here, of course - I was unfamiliar with most of the works Barr discusses. I'm making a list for my next trip to the public library, and I'll keep you posted.
COPYRIGHT 1994 The Progressive, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Rocawich, Linda
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act.
Next Article:Race in America: The Struggle for Equality.

Related Articles
Nearly an open-and-shut case for DEZ.
Race in America: The Struggle for Equality.
The Mezuzah in the Madonna's Foot: Oral Histories Exploring 500 Years in the Paradoxical Relationship of Spain and the Jews.
King of the Pygmies.
Dawn in the Big House.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters