Racism in America: The books have been stacking up - a mountain since the Los Angeles riots of a year and a half ago. Some, like Cornel West's Race Matters and Studs Terkel's Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession, have deservedly achieved niches on the bestseller lists.
I find it upsetting to be forced by the reality around me and the documentation in these books to face facts. Growing up in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, being raised in a home defined by love rather than hate, I felt achieving ideals was possible. I watched on television, as an adolescent, the bloody but successful struggles to end legal discrimination and I played my own small roles now and then. It was possible to believe - as I did in, say, 1965 at age seventeen - that I would live to see the end of racism.
Now I am certain I won't. I look around me and think things are worse, not better. Like so many others who take the time to puzzle out why, I've been - well - puzzled.
Then I read Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo, published without much fanfare in 1992 by St. Martin's Press. Ota Benga was a pygmy in his early twenties - a human being, mind you - purchased somewhere in the Congo by Samuel Phillips Verner to become part of a display at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Later, briefly in 1906. he was housed in a cage at the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan named Dohong.
Verner knew the Congo well from his days there as a Presbyterian missionary in the late 1890s. He was the well-bred grandson of slave owners, one of whom is remembered for single-handedly turning aside a column of Sherman's cavalry on its slash-and-burn journey to the sea, and the son of a member of South Carolina's 1876 roll-back-Reconstruction legislature.
He was also the grandfather of Phillips Verner Bradford, who wrote this book in collaboration with Harvey Blume, a Boston writer. Their story encompasses the lives of both Verner and Ota Benga, and it is fascinating. I turned the pages eagerly - but with a sickening feeling growing ever stronger in the pit of my stomach.
It would be bad enough if turn-of-the-century New York hadn't come out in droves to see the pygmy in the zoo. It would be bad enough, too, if New Yorkers were somehow under the impression that the man in the cage wasn't a man but some sort of animal higher than apes, a "missing link." But a verse published in The New York Times on September 19, 1906, sets that record straight:
"From his native land of darkness to the country of the free in the interest of science and of broad humanity brought wee little Ota Benga dwarfed, benighted, without guile scarcely more than ape or monkey yet a man the while!"
And it would be bad enough if Ota Benga had been the only human put on display. He was alone at the Bronx Zoo...