This article was written in the fall of 2015 after the publication of the Newkirk book (Spectacle) about Ota Benga. I wanted to write about the differences between it and Phil and Harvey’s book, which I think are vast. I want to be fair to Newkirk: her book does its job. I just think it’s a different job than what Phil and Harvey were attempting. — Marc Lee
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In September of 1906 an African ‘forest person’ (popularly – perhaps derogatorily – described as a pygmy) was deposited at the newly opened Bronx Zoo and was publicly exhibited like an animal in one of the cages. This caused a sensation and much publicity, both good and bad, from the zoo’s perspective. Within a month the uproar along with the public interest at the time became such a scandal that arrangements were made for the forest person, called Ota Benga, to be placed in more humane, less exploitive circumstances in a Brooklyn orphanage.
The back story of how this occurred, what led to it and what it meant, has been covered in two books, Ota Benga: the Pygmy in the Zoo (1992) by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume and Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (2015) by Pamela Newkirk. Both books agree on the main facts but give very different interpretations of the people involved. Most notably, the interpretations center on Samuel P. Verner (1873-1943) who was the person who facilitated the arrival of Ota Benga to the new world, having – depending on interpretations – purchased, captured, or saved him, bringing him to the United States
The earlier book was a work of love, self-discovery, and astonishment about the unlikely events 75 to 100 years before by Phillips Bradford, Verner’s grandson, and his co-author, Harvey Blume. The other brings with it a pre-existing agenda: it is a work of protest and outrage at the exploitive relationships and attitudes about race 100 years ago. Both interpretations can be considered valid, given the backgrounds and perspectives of each author. Both lay good claims to the truth – to the extent that any interpretive work distant in time and place from the actual events can make that claim. It should be noted that the initial volume was included in the New York Times’ list of ‘Notable Books of the Year for 1992.’
I write this not as a disinterested observer, but rather as a dear friend of the late Phillips Verner Bradford, my neighbor in the Denver, Colorado area for the 21 years prior to Phil’s untimely death in 2013.
However, I write this also to defend Phil and Harvey Blume from charges in Newkirk’s book that their book was ‘predicated on a notion of friendship between Verner and Ota Benga’ (Newkirk, p. 260) and implies it was written to ‘sell as a film’ (p. 262). Further Bradford and Blume were just part of the century-long series of ‘secrets, lies, denial, and overdue reclamation’ (p. xv), and her own work was an attempt to retell ‘a chapter in history distorted by omission, misstatement, and deceit” (p, 265). Since the Bradford and Blume book was the most widely known prior attempt to tell the story, this can only mean Newkirk is indirectly applying those terms – distortion, misstatement, and deceit – to the Bradford-Blume book. That should be refuted, and I intend to do so.
While the Bradford/Blume book does make claim to a friendship between Benga and Verner – they call their book ‘…the story of the friendship between S.P. Verner and Ota Benga’ (xxi)—Newkirk asserts ‘…it strains credulity to suggest that Ota Benga and Verner were friends’ (p. 251). Perhaps the crux of this disagreement can be isolated in a single event – the decision of Ota Benga to return to the United States with Verner in 1906. The circumstances were complex, but the simple version was that Verner had initially brought Benga to America as part of the anthropology exhibit of the 1903 St. Louis World Fair (recall the ditty, ‘Take me to St. Louis, Louie; take me to the Fair’). Afterwards, Verner and Benga travelled back to Benga’s homeland which had been devastated by the exploitation of King Leopold II of Belgium in pursuit of rubber and copper, not to mention the slave trade among the locals. From there the story trails off into the details of the year between the return to Africa after the World Fair in early 1905, and the decision for Ota to return to America with Verner in early 1906.
The facts are the facts, and in fact Benga did return with Verner. The decisive events in this are recounted in Bradford/Blume:
It was time to begin the round of goodbyes…..A warm, thoroughly sentimental goodbye to Ota Benga, or at least an attempt at one. As it happened, Ota had other plans.
He wanted to learn to read, he said, and not in the mission school, as Verner suggested, but in the land of the muzungu [white people]. He wanted to come with Verner to America….And if you do not take me, Fwela, then I will throw myself into the river and I will drown. (Bradford/Blume, p. 149)
Newkirk surely sensed that in this episode lay the crux of the Bradford contention of friendship between Verner and Benga. Thus, it could not stand uncontested in her interpretation of the story.
By June Verner was ready to return to the United States. As he made his round of good-byes, he claimed Benga asked to return with him. It would not be difficult to understand why, even considering the humiliation and discomfort Benga had endured in St. Louis. Caught now in a cycle of unrest, he could weigh that earlier humiliation against the present genocide of his people. Perhaps he would be free someday to return home. However, even though such calculus was possible, it is not known whether Benga willingly accompanied Verner back to the United States. (Newkirk, p. 168)
Newkirk continues in this vein, casting aspersions on any and all of Verner’s accounts of the episode, suggesting it was both a business opportunity in showing off a pygmy that motivated Verner and that he was willing to use force (kidnapping??) to bring Benga with him. She concludes: ‘There are no independent accounts of the actual circumstances of Benga’s return to the United States’ (p. 169).
Remember we are discussing the possibility of a friendship between Verner and Benga. That the relationship was an exploitive one, there can be no doubt. The whole concept of the ‘anthropology exhibit’ at the World’s Fair (which in addition to Benga and other Africans, included the great Native American chief, Geronimo, plus a series of other ethnic groups, including Inuits from Alaska and others) was exploitive. Bradford and Blume don’t whitewash this aspect in the least. But does that fact preclude the possibility of a friendship of sorts emerging between the exploiter and the exploited? I don’t think, for all her efforts to discredit it, Newkirk can preclude this possibility. That she dwells on this particular episode for several hundred words on two pages indicates it strikes at the heart of her argument questioning the possible friendship. It does. The fact remains that Benga did return with Verner, that he was out of Verner’s control after returning and the following activities showed no attempt on Verner’s part to make further exhibition of Benga for profit, although he did attempt to gain financially and professionally from his travels and adventures in other ways.
Each reader of both books will have to make up his or her own mind about the true nature of the relationship between Benga and Verner. Harsh judgment of Verner is easy looking back 100+ years. Remember Verner was in his early 30’s, married with a young family to support: he was hardly more than a kid himself. There is no doubt that Bradford and – particularly – Harvey Blume were taking advantage of a somewhat romantic literary motif of the exploiter and exploited forging a strange sort of friendship. Verner himself was motivated in his adventures by the story of Robinson Crusoe and Friday. One can see it in the story given about the return to America – whether basically factual or not. One is reminded (as I’m sure Blume was aware) of the story of Huck and Jim in Mark Twain’s great novel. That relationship resonates in American literature and it appears in The Pygmy in the Zoo.
Newkirk is not above forcing her interpretation on events, when it suits her needs. Several places she pauses in the narrative of dates, facts, and places to interpret what she thinks must have gone on in people’s minds. As she states, ‘At times, Benga’s unrecorded and unrecoverable words and thoughts can be inferred from familiar human actions, gestures and comportment’ (Author’s Note). Detailing what Benga must have thought on being exhibited in the zoo, she writes:
We cannot know exactly what Benga felt, but research on the psychological trauma associated with shame suggests that it is not substantially different from the effects of physical torture. Studies also consistently show a strong correlation between event-related shame and post-victimization symptoms including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, withdrawal, and phobias….That would certainly apply to Benga as he endured the gawking spectators utterly indifferent to his feelings. (p, 12).
‘For Benga, each second must have seemed like an eternity.’ (p. 16).
Another example: years later, at Benga’s funeral:
“While no program of the funeral is known to have survived, Bernard Tyrell, the Yale-educated pastor and dean of Virginia Theological Seminary College, would likely have presided over the service.” (p. 244)
While accusing Bradford of distorting history, Newkirk has no qualms about caulking the cracks between the facts in the existing record with conjecture fitting her foregone conclusion on the meaning of things.
As far as minimizing the exploitive nature of the relationship between Ota and S.P. Verner, Bradford and Blume actually bend in the other direction, going far further than Newkirk in presenting the reverse view of the clash of European and African cultures in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Presenting the encounter as one culture penetrating the other is true, but Bradford and Blume do not hesitate to take the forest person’s point of view and present it as equally valid as the prevailing belief that the encounter showed the white race had ‘evolved’ beyond the other races.
On Benga’s return with Verner, the men write:
“He looked forward to a language and customs he didn’t know. He had almost no English, yet he intended, as he told Verner to learn to read. Reading was the secret that led to the place where all the other secrets were stored.
He was going to the village to learn its secrets, borrow its customs, take what was necessary, then go back home, His going – his forcing Verner to take him – was predicated entirely on his coming back.” (p. 150)
In this passage, Bradford and Blume take Ota’s point of view over and against the prevailing Caucasian-centric view prevalent at the time. Here’s another example:
“Why do you dance so much, Ota?” Verner asked one morning, when the sheer beauty of the African scenery went some way toward compensating for the fact that at times he felt he didn’t understand the first thing about the place.“Because they like it,” said Ota.
“Who likes it?”
“They do,” and Ota made a casual gesture toward the trees.
So pygmies thought of themselves as dancing on behalf of the trees, as representing them, as doing for trees what trees couldn’t do for themselves. Pygmies were short, dancing trees; trees were tall, stationary, leafy pygmies. “Trees,” wrote Verner in his journal, under the topic “dance.” (pp. 147-148)
In spite of her insistence on the humanity of Benga and its violation by whites, no similar presentation of Ota’s cultural point of view is present in Newkirk’s recounting. Bradford and Blume go farther in insisting on the equivalence of cultures between the white men and the forest people of Africa. From personal discussions with Phil Bradford in more recent years, I know Phil was a fan of the culture and ‘science’ of the forest people, in their understanding of the natural world, even their ability (apparently) to communicate with elephants in a common ‘language.’
Was Verner a racist? Undoubtedly, by today’s standards, yes. One hundred plus years ago in America, racist attitudes pervaded all aspects of life, social mores, education, law, economics, even the science establishment. In fact, especially the science establishment, which gave a positive veneer to coarser racism among laymen. According to Bradford, for example, Verner, as an evolutionist of his day, believed in the theory of the ‘missing link,’ and that Benga represented this link between apes and humans. Verner, however, was himself evolving from having descended from a slave-owning family to being – something else, a bit of a rebel. I think Bradford and Blume show Verner having a humane relationship with Benga in a way that somewhat transcends his racism. Huck was undoubtedly racist, too, by today’s standards but it didn’t prevent him from seeing Jim as a human. I guess one question is, can Newkirk see Verner as human?
In the acknowledgement section of her book, Newkirk cites several very helpful relationships from librarians, museums, family members of the Verners who remember Ota in her effort to research the story. While, during her research for the Spectacle book, she interviewed Phil (I believe by phone), nowhere does she acknowledge Phil and Harvey’s book as anything other than an attempt to whitewash S. P. Verner’s legacy and get a movie deal. My view is that Newkirk would have never heard of Ota Benga save for the publication of Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo.
To me the most telling detail about the Bradford–Blume book is in the preface. It’s a personal testimony from Phil at the beginning of the book about the events leading him to work on the book. Phil remembered meeting his grandfather as a very young child.
“He muttered about stale tobacco as he stuffed his musty old pipe in his pocket and drew me closer to look me over and tell me a story by which I might remember him. I did sense his approval of me and his glance of appreciation to my mother that she named me after him.” (pp. xi-xii)
Years later he became interested in the story of this strange relative who had read Robinson Crusoe and had become an explorer. The family stories were many, facts were harder to come by. He began to research.
These questions, and others, drove me to retrace his steps. In more recent years, I searched the American Museum of Natural History in New York to track his movements and finally caught up with him.
“Just as if he could jump out of his grave to meet me in person, I was greeted by him through a curator in the anthropology department, Dr. Enid Schildkrout. She presented me with an old letter addressed to the museum from my grandfather, which stated that someday a descendant of his would come to the American Museum to set the record straight. There I was, dumbfounded, with his very words in my hand, as if I were right beside his rocking chair once again. His letter was written long before I was born, and before my parents were married. But he knew I would be there someday.” (pp. xv-xvi)
It was personal but to Newkirk it was all political. I believe Newkirk wrote her book, not as an attempt to tell the story, but as an work of persuasion – and probably an act of personal catharsis – to force the reader to confront the degradation knowing no bounds to which the white man was willing to subject Benga and by association all blacks. Every word, even the flashback sequence of her book’s chapters, drives to a single meaning: outrage at the racism and white supremacy that led to the degradation of a man only because of his blackness. She’s probably right, but repeating it over and over doesn’t make it more true.
By contrast, while Blume and particularly Bradford had a personal interest in the people in the story, there was no attempt to make Verner out to be anything but what he was, a youngish man, who romanticized exploration, who had an interesting life and who had this very (to their view) archetypical relationship with a man of another race, culture and continent, but was nonetheless part and parcel of the larger white supremacist culture of the day. Doing their research and getting inside the details, they knew their story had legs, and they had a proverbial tiger by the tail. To all our benefit, they rode it out.
Theirs was a work of discovery; hers was an exercise in grievance. There is undoubtedly a place for both, but one draws us in and makes us breathe the air of the characters and the times; the other presents a brittle surface we might respect but will not engage us.
While I have described ‘Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo’ as the undifferentiated product of both Phil and Harvey’s work, I do know that each co-author brought a different interest and talent to bear on the final product. While I knew Phil well for over 20 years, I have not met nor talked to Harvey. Nevertheless, I have a clear idea from Phil about the roles of the two men in the creation of this award-winning book. I would like to state what I know – or think I know — about this for the record.
From what I have heard, Phil was the researcher who doggedly dug up the back story of S.P. Verner. Phil brought the family connection. Harvey was brought to the project as a writing talent. I give Harvey much of the credit for the success of the book. I do not know how much of the actual archival research Harvey did but I do know that much of the skill of the presentation, the fiction-like quality and depth of insight historically and culturally were Harvey’s contribution. One immediately thinks of E.L. Doctorow’s book ‘Ragtime,’ with its interweaving of historical figures into a fictional narrative in such an evocative way. Harvey brought this dimension into the story, which – while not at all fiction – had that sepia-toned feel of old photos and archival footage with characters such as Bernard Baruch, Geronimo, Leopold II, popping up here and there in just the right places. Finally, I know Harvey brought an historic and cultural perspective to the important themes of racism, white supremacy, the gilded age, Darwinism, the ‘missing link,’ that Phil agreed with but were probably not his main priority. All this, Harvey Blume provided.
I think it should be clear from the foregoing that, whatever motive related to family prestige or reputation were in Phil’s mind in writing this book, Blume-Bradford as a team largely transcended that aspect. Defending Verner — as Newkirk contends was the motive — was decidedly not the motivation from everything I know about Phil. This neutrality or objectivity, I think, was the product of bringing Harvey into the project. In the end, the book achieves a kind of Olympian perch, viewing the events of 100+ years in the past. The characters move about in the story as recreated, speak through letters and documents, and we see them as from the clouds above. This detachment, this feeling of seeing it, feeling it, but not wanting to ‘stage manage’ it, I attribute to Harvey. Without it, the book would not be the book. Without it, you would have something like the Newkirk book.