At the dawn of the 20th century, a young 103-pound, 4-foot-11-inch tall African named Ota Benga was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo monkey house. The year was 1906, eight years after the consolidation of the five boroughs transformed New York into one of the world’s largest cities, a dazzling hub of finance, publishing, culture, and trade. The New York Zoological Gardens was one of the city’s crown jewels, a sprawling neoclassical wonderland of lush forest, soaring statuary. and gleaming white beaux arts–style pavilions. What became known as the Bronx Zoo had been willed into being by the city’s social elite, who positioned it as the world’s largest and most scientifically advanced facility with an unrivaled array of exotic animals.
On September 8, the unveiling of its latest acquisition, the so-called “pygmy” from the Congo, garnered sensational headlines. “Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes,” screamed the New York Times headline on the following day. According to the article: “The human being happened to be a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale. But to the average non-scientific person in the crowd of sightseers there was something about the display that was unpleasant.”
By the second day of the exhibition, zoo director and chief curator William Temple Hornaday moved Ota Benga from the chimpanzee cage to a larger crescent-shaped structure littered with bones to suggest cannibalism. Benga was joined by an orangutan. A descriptive sign outside the cage noted his age, height, and weight and indicated that he would be “Exhibited each afternoon during September.”
Up to 500 people at a time flocked to the monkey house to behold a spectacle that prompted headlines from New York to California and across Europe. Many laughed. Some jeered. Others cringed. But Ota Benga was a sensation. During the month of September nearly a quarter-million people visited the zoo, double the number from the previous year, and most, if not all, saw the caged Ota Benga, seated in stupefied silence. The prevailing attitudes toward black life, about how little it mattered, had been baked into science, publishing, media, and government and education policies, and they were now on display at the zoo.
A century later many African-Americans continue to assert our humanity against overwhelming evidence that to many, our lives don’t matter. A harrowing cycle of unprosecuted and acquitted police killings of unarmed black boys and men, along with their mass incarcerations for low-level drug infractions, has taken Ota Benga’s place as the modern spectacle—the prism through which white America observes the novelty of caged black life. Over breakfast cereal we now watch the televised spectacle of unarmed black males in custody, in retreat, or as in the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, at play, being snuffed out senselessly. When faced with the most glaring evidence of malice, most good people concur that black lives matter—before switching the station and going on with their day.
But in case after case, from the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, to the failure to prosecute the officers who took the lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, blacks and whites remain starkly divided over perceptions of justice. Most whites, despite the evidence, typically support impunity. In the case of Eric Garner, whose chokehold killing was caught on camera, 90 percent of blacks but just 47 percent of whites polled by the Pew Research Center believed the grand jury erred in failing to prosecute. In most cases, the racial gap yawns wider. Eighty-six percent of blacks and just 30 percent of whites disagreed with the Zimmerman verdict. In Ferguson, 80 percent of blacks and just 23 percent of whites disagreed with the grand jury decision to not prosecute.