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Review: "Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga" by Pamela Newkirk


As an accomplished work of historical biography this book serves on all accounts. This amazing, and rather brutal, reckoning of an African pygmy's capture and removal to America to be displayed at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 and a couple years later at the Bronx Zoo is as amazing as it is disturbing. When factual renderings such as this come to light 100 years after the actual occurrence it gives the reader a window into a world that is difficult to fathom. That learned, educated and revered white men truly felt that scientific research and exploration resulted in the total absence of respect and consideration for other humans is not a fact that we are unaware of, but it is a bold reminder of the times. Ota Benga truly lived a remarkable and impossible life. Tragic from the start there are glimpses of hope, charity and brotherhood, but the dominance of those in power overrides all decency. The book manages to reflect Ota's personal feelings enmeshed in the mores of the day. The month in September 1906 when Ota was displayed at the Bronx Zoo in a monkey cage with chimps, an orangutan, and bones piled about is a shameful portrait of humanity, despite trying to understand our own nature enmeshed in that era. The author is at her best when recounting the actual details of Ota's movement, associations, places and experiences he lived through. Also, when she focuses on other primary characters, e.g. the Director of the Bronx Zoo or the "adventurer" who went to Africa, captured Benga, and lived off a lengthy manipulation of Benga for his own benefit. She is less targeted when she loses her way and digresses into tangential characters and begins to go on for pages about the inherent racism and inequities that were foisted upon people of color during that era. An interesting read with an overall positive recommendation with a word of caution, a bit long at 336 pages, 50 or 100 pages less would have delivered the same message and history.