Today@Sam Article

Prof To Debut Documentary At Smithsonian

Oct. 27, 2015
SHSU Media Contact: Tammy Parrett

Ota Benga and DohongOta Benga was an Mbuti pygmy who was featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis during the 1904 Summer Olympics and at a human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo.

During his time at the Bronx Zoo, Benga was put on display inside the Monkey House, alongside an orangutan named Dohong, of whom he had become fond.

Outside of the cage where he was held, a sign read, “The African Pygmy, Ota Benga. Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches. Weight 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.” 

An editorial published by the New York Times under the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes,” read, “As for Benga himself, he is probably enjoying himself as well as he could anywhere in his country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering.” 

Jean Bodon, professor and chair of the department of mass communication at Sam Houston State University, who had always been fascinated by Benga’s story, reached out to his longtime friend ‘Niyi Coker Jr., endowed professor of African/African-American studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, with an idea to tell Benga’s story in an effort to tackle the controversial issue of racism surrounding his captivity.

Bodon and Coker were recently invited to host a screening of the film at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 1.

During the production of the film, the pair traveled to Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States to discover Benga’s forgotten history through the analyses and perspectives of social scientists, historians, victims of racism, religious leaders, and perpetrators of racist acts, as well as an octogenarian who knew Benga.

“People often excuse or dismiss this atrocious act of racism by saying ‘it was a different time and place. Surely we are not as ignorant as our ancestors,’ simply because it happened 100 years ago,” said Bodon. “The major question becomes, ‘how much change have we accomplished in race relations?’ 

“Have the cages and zoos’ simply morphed over time, becoming sophisticated exclusionary measures such as ‘walling’ Mexico from the U.S., dehumanizing victims of police brutality, the benign neglect of Ebola patients, or creating laws that further target and criminalize specific populations in our society?”

Bodon and Coker hope that the documentary will restore the understanding of Benga’s humanity, as well as those who remain voiceless, marginalized by individual or institutional racism.

For more information on “Ota Benga,” contact Bodon at 936.294.4419.

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