Spectacle Cover


The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

By Pamela Newkirk

Amistad Press, Hardcover, 9780062201003, 336pp.

Publication Date: June 2, 2015


An award-winning journalist reveals a little-known and shameful episode in American history, when an African man was used as a zoo exhibit a shocking story of racial prejudice, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century.

Ota Benga, a young Congolese man, was featured as an exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair. Two years later, in 1906, the Bronx Zoo displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, four-foot eleven-inch man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe.

Spectacle explores the circumstances of Ota Benga's captivity, the international controversy it inspired, and his efforts to adjust to his life in America. It also uncovers, decades later, the flagrant deception that allowed the man most responsible for Ota's exploitation to be hailed as his friend and savior, while those who truly fought for Ota's freedom have been banished to the shadows of history. Using primary historical documents, Pam-ela Newkirk traces Ota's tragic path, from Africa to St. Louis to New York and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his short life.

Illuminating this unfathomable series of events, Spectacle simultaneously charts the evolution of science, elite men and institutions, and racial ideologies. It also explores New York City during the early years of the twentieth century, a racially fraught era that led to a rising tide of political disenfranchisement and social scorn for African Americans. Shocking and compelling, Spectacle is a masterful work of social history that raises difficult questions about racial prejudice and discrimination that continue to haunt us today.

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