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Direitos Humanos / 01/09/2020

After 114 years, US zoo apologizes for showing young black man in monkey cage

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After 114 years, US zoo apologizes for showing young black man in monkey cage

Fonte BBC
Ota Benga was kidnapped in his homeland - the Democratic Republic of Congo is today - and taken to the USA to be displayed in a cage in 1904.

More than a century after making international headlines for showing a young Congolese in the same section as the monkeys, the Bronx Zoo in New York finally issued an apology.

The apology made by the governing body, the Society for the Conservation of Wildlife (WCS), came amid global protests prompted by the death of the American George Floyd by a white police officer in the United States.

Journalist Pamela Newkirk, who has researched and written extensively on the subject, analyzes the case for the BBC.

In a moment of national accounts adjustments, the president of the organization, Cristian Samper, said that it is important to "reflect on WCS 'own history and on the continuity of racism" in the institution.

He promised that the institution will commit to full transparency on the episode, which made headlines in the US and Europe September 9, 1906 - the day after Ota Benga's first showing at the zoo - until September 28, 1906, when he was finally released.

The apology comes, however, after decades of attempts to cover up the episode and hide details about it.

Lies and excuses
Instead of using the episode to teach about the wickedness of racism, WCS spent a century covering up the case, a period in which it actively perpetuated or did not correct false stories and mistakes about what actually happened.

A 1906 letter, stored in the zoo's archives, shows that administrators, in the face of growing criticism, were already talking about creating a narrative to say that Ota Benga had actually been a "zoo employee". And for decades, the lie worked.

In 1916, after Ota Benga's death, a report in The New York Times treated the exhibition as if it were an "urban legend".

"It was the fact that he was employed that generated reports that he was being kept on the spot in the monkey cage," says the article.

The report, of course, contradicts numerous articles a decade earlier in several newspapers in the US and Europe that reported the case.

The New York Times itself had published a dozen reports on the case, the first on September 9, 1906, with the title "Savage shares cage with apes the Bronx Zoo".

In 1974, then zoo curator William Bridges said that it was not known what had actually happened. In his book on the zoo, he asked a question: "Was Ota Benga 'displayed' as a strange and rare animal?"

The question was asked rhetorically in the book. However, he, who controlled the zoo's files, was the person who would know best to answer it.

"That he was locked behind bars to be observed seems unlikely," he wrote, ignoring piles of evidence in the zoo's archives, which showed that this was exactly what happened.

An article about the exhibition, written by the zoo director, even appeared in a publication by the entity that controlled the place.

Despite all the evidence, Bridges wrote that "after all this time, that's all that can be said with certainty, in addition to the fact that everything was done with the best of intentions, because Ota Benga was interesting for the Nova York. "

'Friendship between kidnapper and kidnapped'
Composing these misleading narratives is a book published in 1992 co-authored by the grandson of Samuel Verner, the man who went to the Congo with many weapons to capture Ota Benga and others and exhibit them at the 1904 Saint Louis world fair.

The book had the absurd story of a "friendship" between Verner and Ota Benga.

In at least one newspaper report since the book was published, Verner's grandson also claimed that Ota Benga - who had vigorously resisted the kidnapping - had liked to 'perform' for New Yorkers.

Then, more than a century later, the institution itself and the men who had brutally exploited Ota Benga, and their descendants, contaminated historical records with untrue narratives that circulated around the world.

Even now, Samper apologized for showing Ota Benga for "several days" and not for the three weeks he was held prisoner in the monkey section.

The zoo has now published digitized versions of the documents it has about the episode, including letters describing in detail the daily activities of Ota Benga and the men who imprisoned him.

Many of these letters are already in the book Spectacle: The Unbelievable Life by Ota Benga, published in 2015 (no edition in Brazil).

In the five years since publication, the zoo has, without explanation, refused to issue an apology and respond to media requests.

And the primate section Ota Benga was kept and displayed has since been closed to the public.

'Best cage in the monkey section'
Now, Samper says, "We deeply regret that many people and generations have been harmed by these actions or by our previous failure to condemn and publicly denounce them."

He also denounced founding members Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, both eugenicists, who played a direct role in the Ota Benga exhibition.

Grant wrote the book The Passing of The Great Race, a book steeped in racist pseudoscience that was praised by Osborn and acclaimed by Adolf Hitler.

Osborn led the American Museum of Natural History for 25 years, in 1921 he hosted the second International Congress of Eugenia.

Interestingly, Samper did not mention William Hornaday, the founding director of the zoo who was also one of the most prominent zoologists in the country and founding director of the Washington, DC National Zoo.

Hornaday filled the Ota Benga cage with bones to imply cannibalism and blatantly boasted that Ota Benga had "the best cage in the monkey section".

Some feel that the conservation society now needs to complete its apology with a rigorous disclosure of the truth, suitable for an educational institution.

The episode offers the zoological society the opportunity to educate the public about the history of the conservation movement and its relationship with eugenics: the main founders of the Bronx Zoo were among the most influential disseminators of racial inferiority theories that still resonate among white supremacists.

Another suggestion that society received was to consider the name of Ota Benga as an educational center, since the life and tragic legacy of the kidnapped young man are inextricably linked to the Bronx Zoo.

Who was Ota Benga

Kidnapped in March 1904 by the American merchant Samuel Verner in the then Belgian Congo. His age was not known, he could be 12 or 13 years old.

He was taken by ship to the American state of New Orleans, to be exhibited at the Saint Louis World Fair alongside eight other young Congolese.

The Fair continued into the winter months, and was kept without adequate clothing or shelter the cold.

In September 1906 it was shown for 20 days at the Bronx Zoo, drawing large crowds.

Uprising of Christian priests led to the end of his incarceration and he was transferred to the Howard orphanage in New York, which was coordinated by the African American reverend James H. Gordon

In 1910, he went to live at the Theological Seminary and Lynchburg College for black students in Virginia.

There he taught young people in the neighborhood to hunt and fish and told stories of his adventures in his homeland.

Later he would have depression because he was away home. In March 1916 he killed himself with a weapon he had hidden. It is believed that he was then about 25 years old.

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