Just as the late Stephen Jay Gould updated Charles Darwin by arguing that humans evolved through fits and starts—“punctuated equilibrium”—social progress also is less steady than we would like. Even amid a positive trajectory, there are breakthroughs, plateaus, and setbacks. Sometimes, what seems like a step back actually helps propel society forward. The short unhappy life of Ota Benga—the human being exhibited in the Bronx Zoo—demonstrates how one big example of racist ugliness may have resulted in at least one small step toward racial progress.
Although the true origins of this sad story begins with the specious theories of superiority whites developed centuries ago, Benga’s tale begins in the early 1900s, in the Belgian-controlled Congo Free State. His life in his community ended when King Leopold’s Force Publique invaded his world, murdering his wife and two children, then selling him as a slave to the Baschilele tribe. This all too familiar outrage took a bizarre turn when an American anthropologist, Samuel Philips Verner, purchased him for five dollars’ worth of cloth and salt. This woefully misguided missionary then brought Benga along with eight other young Africans to star in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
Benga’s slight build, dark skin, and artificially sharpened teeth—from a ritual called chipping—fit many Americans’ racist stereotype of the African savage. As Pamela Newkirk notes in her award-winning book, Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, now out in paperback, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch greeted the “African Pygmies for the World’s Fair” on June 26, 1904. Benga and his troupe won the gold medal for entertaining the crowds with their dances and other tribal rituals.