Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (Paperback)

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2016 NAACP Image Award Winner

Winner of the 2016 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Nonfiction

An award-winning journalist reveals a little-known and shameful episode in American history, when an African man was used as a human zoo exhibit—a shocking story of racial prejudice, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century in the tradition of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Devil in the White City, and Medical Apartheid.

In 1904, Ota Benga, a young Congolese “pygmy”—a person of petite stature—arrived from central Africa and was featured in an anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, the New York Zoological Gardens displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, 4-foot 11-inch tall man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe.

Spectacle explores the circumstances of Ota Benga’s captivity, the international controversy it inspired, and his efforts to adjust to American life. It also reveals why, decades later, the man most responsible for his exploitation would be hailed as his friend and savior, while those who truly fought for Ota have been banished to the shadows of history. Using primary historical documents, Pamela Newkirk traces Ota’s tragic life, from Africa to St. Louis to New York, and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his short life.

Illuminating this unimaginable event, Spectacle charts the evolution of science and race relations in New York City during the early years of the twentieth century, exploring this racially fraught era for Africa-Americans and the rising tide of political disenfranchisement and social scorn they endured, forty years after the end of the Civil War. Shocking and compelling Spectacle is a masterful work of social history that raises difficult questions about racial prejudice and discrimination that continue to haunt us today.

Praise For…


“Here is a gripping and painstaking narrative that breaks new ground. Now, after a century, Benga has finally been heard.”

“Newkirks account of this shocking and shameful story is forceful.”

“Haunting and heartbreaking.”

“What became of Benga is best left discovered by readers of this revelatory book. Suffice to say that the shock of it will haunt you. Newkirk’s dispassionate, powerfully understated writing lets her sorrowful account speak for itself.”

“[Ota Benga’s] story has been told before, but the journalist Pamela Newkirk fleshes it out with chilling human dimension and rich anthropological perspective in her engrossing new book, Spectacle.

“With her meticulously researched account, Newkirk rights the record, offering a profoundly unsettling look at the racism deeply rooted in even the city’s (and the nation’s) progressive institutions at the start of the 20th century.”

“Newkirk’s investigation is a nuanced account of Benga’s relationship with Verner and Hornaday, a subtle look into what it meant for a colonized African to be free and how the pursuit of scientific knowledge played a role in racial subjection.”

“In this enthralling social history, Newkirk reveals the truth about Ota Benga, the people who exploited him and the heroes who fought vainly to save him.”

“This is an explosive, heartbreaking book. It unfolds with the grace of an E.L. Doctorow novel, and spins forward with the urgency of a wild tabloid story.”

“A riveting account of one of the most startling episodes in the sorry history of race in America. Ms. Newkirk is a crisp storyteller as well as an experienced journalist whose investigative skills bring alive both her cast of characters and the age in which they lived.”

“Compelling. . . . Spectacle is an exhaustively researched work of social history that links Benga’s story with examinations of turn-of-the-century racial discrimination and discord, scientific polygenism, middle-class African American life in New York, and yellow journalism.”

“Deeply researched and thoughtful. . . . Writing with precision and moral clarity, Newkirk indicts a civilization whose ‘cruelty was cloaked in civility,’ leaving us to examine its remnants.”

“Painstakingly researched and heartbreaking. . . . Newkirk does an exemplary job of respecting the damaged dignity of her subject.”

“Pamela Newkirk has taken a careful, highly readable look at an episode that lays bare so much about our not-so-distant past. It’s all here: the dreams of glory in African exploration, appalling racism, and the moving, tragic odyssey of a forgotten man who was the victim of both.”

“A shocking tale of a young African taken from his home for the purposes of Western science throws into relief the turn-of-the-century’s ill-conceived intentions and prejudice. . . . An inspired and moving work of intrepid scholarship.”

“Meticulously detailed. . . . Readers will be moved, especially when reading about the tragic turns Benga’s life took in the years after he was released.”


Product Details
ISBN: 9780062201027
ISBN-10: 0062201026
Publisher: Amistad
Publication Date: September 6th, 2016
Pages: 336
Language: English

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