Man in a monkey cage

The sign read:

The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga.”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September

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On September 8, 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York City added a new exhibit, a small coffee-skinned African man named Ota Benga. Placed with the monkeys, the man had an open cage to sleep in. Delighted visitors came by the thousands, the tens of thousands, bringing their friends and children to see the African man. Many of the spectators believed him to be some sub-species of man, somewhere on the evolutionary scale between monkeys and human children. And the spectators didn’t just want to see the man, they wanted him to perform. They wanted to see him hunt, play with the orangutan, dance and climb trees. If he hid, they threw rocks against his cage to draw him out. If he sat, they yelled racial slurs and insults to spark him into action, something their children could clap over and tell their friends about later. “Dance, monkey, dance,” they seemed to yell as an adult man sat behind bars, listening to their unfamiliar foreign words, yet their intent all too easy to understand.

Word spread quickly, throughout the country and then internationally: the Americans had an African man on exhibit with monkeys. New York had been a free state long before the Civil War, seeing African American citizens as deserving of equality and equal rights. And now, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, a man was in a cage.

It took them time to figure out what had happened, and language barriers, direct lies, poor record-keeping, and time have kept many of the details hidden.

The man who came to be known as Ota Benga grew up in the Congo, then under Belgian rule. Under harsh sanctions from the Belgian people, the Congolese tribes were exploited and forced into labor. Samuel Verner, who had served as a Christian missionary in the Congo previously, and who had also spent time in a mental institution, was sent to the Congo to acquire willing men to be brought to America to be put on display at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Benga was among them.

A bizarre series of events led to Benga being placed in the Museum of Natural History before he was placed on exhibit at the zoo, exploited and stared at.

Verner told story after story, each contradicting the others, in an effort to make himself sound heroic. He told how he had rescued Benga from slave traders, how Benga trusted only him, how Benga had asked to come to America and be placed on display. Yet in truth, Verner was a swindler and a liar. Not only had he fathered children with women while he was in Africa, he had racked up debts and exploited money. And Benga was not the first Congolese boy he had brought to the United States.

I learned about Benga only recently, when I chose a book about him at random off of a shelf. I read ravenously, devouring the words and images of this story that I had never heard before, these forgotten horrific moments of American history.

How could this have possibly happened, I wondered, in a country that is founded on Christian principles, equality of all men, and dignity of each person. And then I recalled the very founding of our country, a mix of declaring liberty from foreign powers while asserting our foreign power over the Native Americans with violence and blood; a mixture of welcoming foreigners, while building the country on the backs of foreign slaves.

The violent opposition of it all makes my head spin. We who consider ourselves the great democracy, founded on the principles of free speech and choice and religion, the greatest country in the world with equality and opportunity for all, priding ourselves on the American dream, yet we have entire presidential campaigns running on premises of refuting gay marriage, opposing women’s health care options, restricting immigration by building walls, and banning religious groups.

Ota Benga was a small man, but he was not a child nor did he have limited intellect. He had filed his teeth to fine points not because he was a cannibal or a savage, but because that was a custom among his tribe, a rite of passage for men. He communed with the monkeys in the exhibit not because he considered himself one of them, but because they were his only solace and support as the white Americans jeered.

After Benga was released from the zoo, he was taken in by an educated group of black Americans who gave him companionship and work and taught him the language. Benga lived among these citizens, whose ancestors had been forced from their homes to be slaves, belonging and yet not belonging; they had history in America, he was a refugee. It is believed Benga had lost a wife and children in the Congo, a result of cruel white men, before coming to America. He lived in relative isolation here for years, using an American-ized version of his name, Otto Bingo.

Until, in 1916, Benga found a gun and shot himself through the heart, a poetically tragic end to his story.

As I finish this story, and reflect, I’m left to wonder how we, as an evolving society of Americans… how much have we really changed?

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Women in Hot Water

“A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

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Christopher Columbus sailed around the world with a ship full of men, and hundreds of thousands of men followed, each seeking to stake a claim in a new land. America was founded on the principles of a fresh start, escaping poverty and oppression and building a new life in a new world. Civilization spread over the next two hundred years from coast to coast. Men came, men conquered.

And eventually, an organized civilization formed in the name of revolution. Wanting freedom from other men, these men declared war and, in time, won, declaring independence. These men formalized a government, wrote a Constitution, elected a president, put a court system in place, and began to govern the people. America was a nation of immigrants, unified in the cause of governance.

The land of the free, they called it. The home of the brave, they said, where all men were created equal. Except for the Native Americans, slaughtered, given diseases, and eventually shoved onto small pockets of land to contain them. Except for blacks, gathered on ships and stolen from their homes, then forced into slave labor for generations. Except for Mexicans, killed and manipulated in the need for acquisition of more land. And except for women, who were expected to bear children, serve in the home, and not participate in governance.

It took ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ until 1920 to give women the right to vote. Around 135 years after the formation of the country on the premise that all are created equal, the other fifty per cent of our citizens got their most basic right. (Keeping in mind, this was after we went to war to end slavery, decades before the Civil Rights movement, and nearly 100 years before same-sex couples would be granted the right to marry).

In 2016, population wise, there are more women than men by several million. Men make up most of the prison population, commit nearly all of the violent and sexual crimes (including, obviously, rape and murder). Men run most of the American businesses (around 85 per cent) and are paid more than women in nearly every position, often including fields where women dominate the work place (like social work and nursing). Men run most of the religious organizations in the country, almost exclusively.

And perhaps most shocking, men dominate in nearly every category of elected officials in the United States. A recent study showed that the United States ranks number 69 in the rankings of the world’s democracies in elected positions for women. In fact, Afghanistan has more women in government than the US. As does Pakistan. And Uganda.

In our presidential running this year for the Republican and Democratic primaries, we saw a bit more racial diversity among the candidates, though it was still dominated by white men (though some of them had racially diverse spouses), and one female candidate on each side. One. Carly Fiorina for the Republican party, and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic.

I, personally, am saddened and a bit horrified at the idea that we are still so far from having equal representation in our government. Men have been making mistakes in our government for  a very long time. And the only way women can break in is by playing by the men’s rules in the men’s systems, with men as their peers. And the country is still, by and large, very patriarchal and misogynistic, and makes it very hard for a woman to succeed.

It is with this awareness of history and focus on social justice that I went about researching Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton. Clinton was raised in Chicago by a hard-working father who taught her self-reliance, and a courageous mother who had been abandoned by her parents and abused by her grandparents before staking out life on her own terms. Hillary’s mother raised her to believe in herself, treating Hillary and her two brothers as capable in every capacity. Hillary was raised with an awareness of privilege and social justice, and knew very young that she would make something of herself someday.

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Hillary married the handsome young Bill Clinton and moved to Arkansas, building a life for herself there as a successful attorney as Bill ran for various government positions. Hillary is now nearly 70 years old. During her life span, she has been the First Lady of Arkansas for nearly 15 years, the First Lady of the United States for 8 years, a Senator in New York for 8 years, and the Secretary of State for 4 years. That is a total of 35 years in public, over half of her life. She has also run two Presidential campaigns. She has championed education, women’s rights, children’s rights, LGBT rights, free information rights, and health care. She has survived public scandals and inquisitions, media feeding frenzies, and decades in the public spotlight. She has shown up time and again with courage, clarity, and strength in the face of opposition at every turn. And in my opinion, she has done so with grace, strength, and openness.

As Secretary of State, Hillary traveled the world, interfacing with male world leaders, many times as the only woman in the room. She negotiated with men who weren’t allowed to shake her hand because she was a woman, due to their own customs. She was courageous and strategic in each instance, and she stood for social justice in each encounter. She has a deep sense of history, change, initiative, and responsibility.

I don’t thank that any presidential candidate is spotless. But Hillary Clinton has my vote for three primary reasons: 1. She is simply the most qualified candidate up there. 2. She knows, first hand, what being president entails. She has, quite literally, lived it. 3. It is long past time we had a female in office.

Centuries past time.

It’s time to put more women in hot water so we can see how strong they are. z47