Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

This was a very timely read given the threat of North Korea on Guam, a place most people in the U.S. do not even know is a U.S. territory. Although this book does not specifically discuss Guam, it does focus on the imperialism of the U.S. which is very much related to Guam.

It is amazing the amount of things that are not mentioned in the classroom when discussing U.S. history. This book speaks to the imperialist past of the U.S. by highlighting a very specific story that illustrates this seemingly forgotten past.

Ota Benga was kidnapped from his home in the Congo to be put on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair as well as the Bronx Zoo. At the time the science community, specifically the anthropological community, was very focused on displaying the superiority of the white race, relative to African people, specifically ones like Ota Benga (he was a Mbuti pygmy).

Pamela Newkirk did an amazing job researching what she could on the information available on Ota Benga. A lot of the available information was skewed and/or biased given that it was not coming directly from Ota Benga. Nevertheless, she did a wonderful job letting the reader know that this was not necessarily the truth and to be skeptical. I appreciated though that she presented the information available in a matter of fact manner to allow the reader to make their own judgment on the information presented.

The length of the book was perfect. I realize that it is hard with these sort of topics to know how much to put it and what to leave out. Additionally, Pamela integrated details on the African-American community of the time, beyond just the scope of their role in the release of Ota Benga from the Bronx Zoo.

However, what stood out to me the most was the incorporation of the role the St. Louis World’s Fair, zoos, museums and anthropology played in the imperialism of the U.S. It is not often that you happen upon a book that is able to cover such a breadth of topics and so well. Pamela Newkirk not only gave justice to the story of Ota Benga, but successfully used his tragic life story as a means to explain the greater forces at work.

“The presence of Benga and his countrymen– along with the Native American; the Filipinos and Igorot; and the Japanese Ainu–was intended to highlight the United States’ conquests, imperialism, and progress”. – Pamela Newkirk





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