A Plus Book Club

100 Years Ago, A Man Was Kept Caged At The Bronx Zoo. His Story Is Still Relevant Today.

Dr. Pamela Newkirk’s book “Spectacle: The Astonishing Story of Ota Benga” was this month’s pick for the A Plus Book Club.

The A Plus Book Club ended the summer on a more serious note when Associate Editor Lindsay Geller and I were joined by Dr. Pamela Newkirk for this month's meeting. As historical nonfiction, Newkirk's book Spectacle: The Astonishing Story of Ota Benga, is a little different than books we've selected thus far (and a little far from beach reading), Lindsay and I know that sometimes, it's the tough stories that are the most important to tell.

Spectacle, the results of years of research by Newkirk, is the story of Ota Benga, a man who was kidnapped from his home in the Congo when he was still a teenager. Benga was brought to the U.S. as part of a display at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904 and eventually ended up in a cage as an exhibit at the Monkey House in the Bronx Zoo. 

For generations, Benga's story was retold as an individual who voluntarily left his village in the Congo in the care of an American scientist he thought of as his friend. The Bronx Zoo maintained that Benga has worked for a short period at their attraction before starting his new and better life in Virginia. Newkirk said that she found this to be the most surprising start of her research, that the truth of Benga's life had been so intentionally altered. 

"Institutions today that were complicit in this still have not acknowledged it," Newkirk said. "There's still just silence around it."

Newkirk believes this lack of recognition of Benga's story is an example of the lack of respect with which Black lives were treated more than a hundred years ago is directly related to the movements around the importance of Black lives we are seeing in our country now. 

"Until we really look at our history, and look at it honestly and see how these ideas were able to percolate and resonate with so large a public, we are never going to get past what we're seeing today," Newkirk said. "We have not yet reconciled our past, so we're kind of doomed to repeat it. We need to face how we got to this place and why so many people still cling to these ideas." 

Check out the full conversation in the video above, and be sure to join us for next month's A Plus Book Club. As always, if there's a book you'd like to see featured, send your requests to bookclub@aplus.com.

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