The Curious Case of Ota Benga

Published:January 3, 2009 by Brendan Wolfe

In this morning’s Washington Post, film reviewer Anne Hornaday writes about her own family’s connection to a name that recently has “bubble(d) up into the zeitgeist”: Ota Benga.

Benga was an African pygmy who, in 1904, was brought to the United States from the Congo, where his family had been massacred and he had been captured by slave traders. An American missionary purchased Benga from the traders and exhibited him at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Benga went on to become a controversial exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, where he actually lived in the monkey cage. That’s where Hornaday’s connection comes in. It was her great-great-great uncle who ran the zoo at the time.

As for Benga and the zeitgeist, a character in the new Pitt-flick The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is modeled on him.

So what’s the Virginia connection, you ask? I was wondering the same thing as I read the Post piece, because I knew there was one. Benga’s name had come up more than once concerning an Encyclopedia Virginia article, but which one?

Ahhh. The Post comes through:

Reportedly, it didn’t take long for Temple to cancel the monkey house exhibit, his otherwise impenetrable shell of hubris, condescension and naivete unequal to the controversy that he had unleashed. Benga stayed at the zoo for several more days before he went to live in a home for African American orphans in Brooklyn, eventually settling in Lynchburg, Va., where he befriended the poet Anne Spencer. He died in 1916, after shooting himself in the heart.

Anne Spencer. Now I remember. When we added mention to Benga in that entry, there was some discussion. Was his connection to Spencer too marginal? Did we include too much information for a short article? Was our interest prurient? Did our language accurately express his situation—i.e., was he a pygmy or a “pygmy”? Was he “discovered” in Africa or “captured” or “kidnapped”?

In the end, I think we got it about right. And Benga’s story, controversial and sad, is clearly one worth exploring.

Discussion

No Comments on “The Curious Case of Ota Benga”

  1. Leslye M. Huff, Esq.

    Verner bought Ota Benga and some might say he used him as property. It is important to note that ironically Ota Benga killed himself in Lynchburg, Virginia….
    “and before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home……. and be free”

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