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The Case of Ota Benga

Dr. David Wesley
Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies
Director, 365M Program

It is hard to imagine that the Bronx Zoo would place a human being on display along with animals, but that is precisely what happened to a man by the name of Ota Benga.

One hundred years ago, on September 8th, 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York unveiled a new exhibit that would attract thousands of visitors to come and marvel. Inside a cage, in the monkey house, was a man. His name was Ota Benga. He was 22 years old, a member of the Batwa people, pygmies who lived in what was then, the Belgian Congo.

Ota Benga first came to the United States in 1904. The St. Louis World’s Fair had hired Samuel Phillips Verner, an American explorer and missionary, to bring African pygmies to the exposition. 

After the World’s Fair, Verner, as promised, took the Africans back to their country. But Ota Benga found that he didn’t fit in at “home” anymore — all the members of his particular tribe had been annihilated during his time away — and he asked Verner to take him back to the United States. That’s when Ota Benga ended up at the Bronx Zoo. It’s estimated that 40,000 visitors a day came to see him.

Ota Benga was one of many people who were placed on display during the 1906 fair. Placed on display and treated less than human simply because they were different.

The same story can be told of African slaves as well as people today who are enslaved such as the millions of women who are victims of gender based violence.

We may explain what happened to Ota Benga as an issue of many years ago, but we still wrestle with the same core issue of how we live into our identity as followers of Jesus when we encounter “others”.  Others who may be Iranian. Others who may be Muslim. Others who may be homosexual. Others who are Democrat or Republican. Others who are not like me. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, Ota Benga’s story reminds us that how we perceive others perhaps is the greatest identifier of who we are. We may go as far as to say that proclaiming Christ and dehumanizing others through racism and other forms of “otherness” is a form of taking the Lord’s name in vain. In many ways proclaiming Christ and being a disciple of the Lord is very closely tied to what we do with Ota Benga.

In the past year I have been researching congregations that are asking what followers of Jesus should do with those suffering of AIDs, those who are victims of gender based violence, and those who are often considered to be “others”.  My colleague Bill Selvidge is also researching congregations that engage in relationships with “others” who may speak different languages and have different values. I think that my colleague would concur with me that through our research we are finding signs of the Kingdom in many places.  I would add, however, that we still have a long ways to go.

As we bring this season of lent to a close and walk into the power of the resurrection, I would add a prayer of confession for those of us who have too often justified the treatment of others as beyond our control, and I pray that the power that is in the resurrection will increase our courage moving us to live into the mission of God as followers of the resurrected Lord.

Source for story on Ota Benga: