Benga: I am a man (historical figure)


“History is not what happened, but what shipwrecks of judgement and chance” – Maria Popova.

This year 2020 saw the uprising of the black lives matter movement, following the brutal killings of black people in America such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. The movement revealed racial prejudice that exists in America and the struggle thus far. The topic of racism is vast, however, it is crucial for us to recognize how far we have come. Many people sacrificed their lives in the quest for freedom for their black kinfolk and one of those people (oft-forgotten) who was unimaginatively brutalized was Ota Benga.

Ota Benga born with the name Mbye Otabenga in 1883, was a Mbuti (Congo Pygmy) man. He was a tiny man with sharp-pointed teeth (which he developed through tooth-chipping, a popular practice among young men then). He had survived a massacre by the Belgian Colonia Army where he was enslaved and freed. His wife and two children were also killed by a hostile tribe.

In 1904, a white supremacist and explorer by the name Samuel Verner visited Congo and returned to America with Benga, where he was displayed at the anthropology exhibit of 1906 in the Bronx Zoo (a human zoo). Benga was caged with monkies at the Zoo. The Zoo at the time was under the direction of Dr William Hornaday who apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and a tiny black man. Dr Hornaday once said that “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage”.

Benga was not only displayed at the Zoo for entertainment but also for educational purposes. It was their belief that Benga belonged to inferior species, one they described as “degraded and degenerate race”. As a result, the display was also intended to promote modern civilisation at the time which was four decades after the end of slavery in America.

Benga was kept in captivity at the zoo with the monkies for about 20 days. This sparked a huge controversy at the time, which saw the uprise of the “I am a Man” protest. This resulted in the zoo recording about 20,000 visitors in one day.

Through the protest led by Rev. James Gordon, Benga was released from the zoo and placed in school. He quit school and worked in a tobacco factory. He was adjusting to an American lifestyle when World War I happened. Out of depression, Benga committed suicide by shooting himself in March 1916.

Ota Benga is one of those personalities barely mentioned in history books or curriculum but his story is an indication of the cruelty of racism. When remembering heroes of the black race, remember Ota Benga the man.

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