Ota Benga

if I could ask daddy…

by jani on October 10, 2012

Daddy was born in Kentucky in 1896, but spent his boyhood in St Louis, Missouri. He often spoke of watching the Wright Brothers piloting their “flying machine” while attending the St Louis World Fair. It was fun listening to his stories. But now in my later years, I am filled with so many unanswered questions. As I read the history about the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (or simply referred to as the St Louis World Fair). Does anyone remember Judy Garland’s, “Meet Me At The Fair”?

If I could, I would ask Dad if his lifelong love of puffed wheat came because it was introduced at that fair. “Is that the first time you ever tasted it, Daddy?” Maybe I wouldn’t have disliked that cereal so much… maybe there would be so much more to that story…. Or ice cream cones… Daddy loved ice cream cones.

According to Wikepedia: “A number of foods are claimed to have been invented at the fair. The most popular claim is that the waffle-style ice cream cone was invented and first sold during the fair. However, it is widely believed that it was not invented at the Fair, but instead, it was popularized at the Fair. Other claims are more dubious, including the hamburger and hot dog (both traditional American foods), peanut butter, iced tea, and cotton candy. It is more likely, however, that these food items were first introduced to mass audiences and popularized by the fair. Dr. Pepper and Puffed Wheat cereal were first introduced to a national audience at the fair.”

Daddy never really liked cotton candy… I did. But did he stand in awe watching it being made for the first time, almost afraid to try it?

Ever try puffed wheat? Growing up it was a staple in our kitchen cupboards. I didn’t like it!

But, this fair had a darker side. The following story, to me,  is horrifying. Did Daddy go and see these people? Did he feel ashamed? Did he point and laugh like in the movie “Phantom of the Opera” or “Elephant Man”? I don’t know, because I never asked. I want to believe that even though my dad was only eight years old, he had the character to know this was a travesty!

From Wikepedia:

“Following the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired new territories such as Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. Some natives from these areas were brought to be on ‘display’ at the fair. Such displays included the Apache of the American Southwest and the Igorot of the Philippines, both of which peoples were dubbed as “primitive”.

In contrast, the Japan pavilion advanced the idea of a modern yet exotic culture unfamiliar to the turn-of-the-century Western world, much as it had during the earlier Chicago World’s Fair.

Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy, was featured at the fair. Later he was given the run of the grounds at the Bronx Zoo in New York, then featured in an exhibit on evolution alongside an orangutan in 1906, but public protest ended that.”

As I read the story of Ota Benga, I couldn’t stop myself from crying… this young man was only 18 when first “displayed” at the fair in 1904. He then was taken, “displayed” and eventually released from the monkey house in 1906. But with the outbreak of WWI, with no hope of returning to his native Congo, he committed suicide at the age of 32.

Ota Benga in 1904

My tears kept falling as I read about Ota Benga. I wanted to learn more about this man… I knew there had to be more. After researching, I found the book I was looking for. Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof  is a compilation of poetry by the wonderful author, Carrie Allen McCray. Perhaps you’ve read Freedom’s Child? It’s yet another poignant book by this author. Ota’s story, beautifully captured through poetry, is a must-read. McCray captures the extraordinary and tragic life of this brave man in a very personal way, as Ota Benga had lived with McCray’s family. She paints images of what horrors can be inflicted upon our brothers and sisters in the name of industry, science and progress. It’s a sad reminder of where we were in the history of our country just over a century ago – and where we must never return!

Daddy died in 1978. He had a life filled with opportunity and promise. How did he feel about Ota… how did he feel about slavery? He was, after all, from a family of slave owners. That sentence is difficult to write. My grandmother… a slave owner? That’s right. I can’t change the past, but I can try to change the future. I can change me… I can try to influence how my children and grandchildren view the world and their fellow men and women. I can share with them the feelings I had as I marched during the summer of civil rights marches happening across the U.S. – and how it felt to sing, “We Shall Overcome”… I’ve sung it to them. There’s still so much more to be done!

Have you read any of Carrie Allen McCray’s books? Have you read, “Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof”? If not – I hope you will!