Welcome back to another episode of Black History Fun Fact Friday. It’s been a long time and we have a lot to cover today.
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The Caged Man
Mbuti or Bambuti are one of the several indigenous pygmy groups in the Congo region of Africa. One famous Congolese Mbuti, who was made famous in a horrific way, committed suicide 100 years ago. On May 20, 1916, Ota Benga put a gun to his heart and pulled the trigger. Depression and sadness are modest terms we use to understand the spirits that troubled him. But who was he and why is knowing his story important in our time?
In the early 1900s, a “businessman” (more appropriately speaking a slave trader) named Samuel Verner, tasked with the responsibility of acquiring pygmies for a cultural evolution display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, encountered Benga in 1904. Paid by the St. Louis Exposition Company a year earlier to hunt men instead of monkeys, he was to bring African Pygmies to America for the St. Louis World Fair.
Ota’s family were killed by a Belgium militia group who set out to control the natives of that land for the large supply of rubber in the Congo. Ota had a wife and two children who were killed in such raids on villages and survived because he was on a hunting mission. To make a long story short, Ota was kidnapped and taken to America by Samuel along with other pygmies who were kidnapped as well and brought to America.
Clockwise from top left: Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo holding a chimpanzee. An article from the New York Times announcing the new exhibit at the zoo. Another photo from the zoo of Ota Benga and the chimpanzee. The Reverend James Gordon who protested Ota being exhibited in the monkey house and who took custody of him after he was released.
Benga’s physical appearance, as is most Mbuti, astonished onlookers who immediately compared him to an animal, specifically for his short stature and razor-sharp teeth. Displays of humans were very common in the early 20th century to prove the theory of the evolution of man. Most specifically, men and women of color from the Eastern part of the world were used as examples of the lower class of humans and often put on display. They were usually those with abnormal features and deformities. It’s no surprise then that Ota and his fellow men became an instant attraction. Ota’s personality was also said to have been lively and the men attracted spectators wherever they went until Ota was eventually caged at a Bronx Zoo in 1906. He eventually became fond, allegedly, of a monkey and so began The Caged Man in the Monkey House.
Ota’s story is worth telling because Africa is a continent with over fifty countries and comprise many different people and cultures. There are just as many cultures and nationalities of people as there are languages and just as many languages as there are colors. But when you group a people together and call them “Blacks” you deny them their right to heritage and nationhood, because Black does not properly define a people. While I use these terms (Black, African American) for understanding sake, the Bible says nothing about race, nor is the word or concept of different “races” found in the Bible at all (See Gen Ch 10) despite the fact that the term has been used to cause divisions among man. More appropriately, some of the Black “races” of the world are Israelites, some of them Egyptians, Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Senegalese, Congolese, Libyans and so forth. Thus, this story is important to the understanding of identity as well as the medical field and how it fits in with the racial oppression of Blacks in America going back for centuries.
Contrary to popular belief, Eugenics did not start with Margaret Sanger and The American Birth Control League but the concept started much earlier.
Coined by the cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Eugenics comes from the Greek word eugenes, meaning “well-born.” It is a racist scientific process that set out to prove, through alleged psychological and medical evidence, the inferiority of Blacks. From 1924 – 1936, thirteen states in the U.S. utilized Eugenics programs that ranged from isolating those deemed “feeble-minded” from the general population to forced sterilization.
“When the infamous German eugenic sterilization initiative began in January 1934, seventeen U.S. states were already performing sterilizations routinely, and that year between two thousand and four thousand Americans were sterilized. Indiana passed legislation requiring the sterilization of the mentally unfit in 1907. By 1911, six states had passed laws providing compulsory sterilization of the mentally unfit. In 1935, twenty-seven states had such laws for the feeble-minded, those on welfare, or those with genetic defects. Forced sterilization was made legal in the infamous 1927 Buck vs Bell.” (Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington, The Black Stork, pp 202)
Galton, in short, took Darwin’s philosophies and ideas on Evolution and put them into practice in what became known as Eugenics. He proposed that the poor, the sick, the weak and the untalented should be prevented from multiplying. Leonard Darwin, Darwin’s son, was also one of the supporters and proponents of eugenics in Britain. Galton maintained that the principle of the “survival of the fittest” had to be complied with and that only the strongest should be allowed to participate in the world.
“… modern eugenics thought arose in the nineteenth century. The emergence of interest in eugenics during that century had multiple roots. The most important was the theory of evolution, for Francis Galton’s ideas on eugenics – and it was he who created the term “eugenics” – were a direct logical outgrowth of the scientific doctrine elaborated by his cousin, Charles Darwin.” – Ludmerer, Eugenics, In: Encyclopedia of Bioethics, Edited by Mark Lappe, New York: The Free Press, 1978, p. 457
A reviewer of the time said:
“After 1859, the evolutionary schema raised additional questions, particularly whether or not Afro-Americans could survive competition with their white near-relations. The momentous answer was a resounding no…. The African was inferior—he represented the missing link between ape and Teuton.”
– John C. Burnham, Science, Vol. 175, February 4, 1972, p. 506.
Nineteenth Century scientists were convinced that the white race (something that doesn’t actually exist) were superior to other races and that this superiority can be found in Darwinian Theory. One key person in the perpetuation of this was Thomas Huxley who said: “No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man.”
And while Darwin claimed to be opposed to slavery and the horrors of the brutality, his own words are questionable. He presumed that man evolved from ape-like creatures and surmised that some races developed more than others:
“I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit…. The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.” – Charles Darwin: Life and Letters, I, letter to W. Graham, July 3, 1881, p. 316; cited in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (London, Chatto and Windus, 1959), p. 343.
And of course, the most debated statement of all:
“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. – Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., New York: A.L. Burt Co., 1874, p. 178
In short, it is a fact that White Supremacists supported Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and used it to further racism. For them, the white race had, in short, moved up the evolutionary ladder and was destined to eliminate the other races in the struggle to survive.
Certain African Americans are not to be excluded. Many prominent Blacks also supported Eugenics. Fisk University’s first Black President and critical contributor to The Harlem Renaissance Charles S. Johnson, said that “Eugenic discrimination was necessary for blacks” and that “the high maternal and infant mortality rates, along with diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria and venereal infection, made it difficult for large families to adequately sustain themselves.” – Charles S. Johnson, A Question of Negro Health, The Birth Control Review, June 1932, 167-169
He later became an integral part of Margaret Sanger’s Negro Project, but he’s not the only one, many blacks agreed. According to Margaret Sanger’s most infamous quote:
“The most successful approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal….we do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the one who can straighten out that idea if it occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”
Sanger said this in a 1939 letter where she outlined her plan to reach out to black leaders — specifically ministers — to help dispel community suspicions about the family planning clinics she was opening in the South. It must be noted that Sanger was not the progenitor of this idea but reaching out to ministers and black leaders in the community was the idea of another very prominent man.
“The mass of ignorant Negros still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.”
– National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Founder, W.E.B. Dubois, The Birth Control Review, 1932, Black Folk and Birth Control, pp 166
Dubois went on to say that the Black community were open to “intelligent propaganda of any sort”, and “the American Birth Control League and other agencies ought to get their speakers before church congregations and their arguments in the Negro newspapers.” It worked. Black pastors invited Sanger to speak to their congregations. Black publications, like The Afro-American and The Chicago Defender, featured her writings and the lines between Eugenics and Birth Control became blurred.
Sanger merged the Southern Clinics, the Clinical Research Bureau and The American Birth Control League, to form the Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA) and recruited black leadership as Dubois and others advised. Soon, BCFA clinics started popping up in poor black neighborhoods. The first clinic was The Bethlehem Center in urban Nashville, Tennessee (where blacks constituted only 25 percent of the population and no one made more than $15 a week), opened on February 13, 1940, and the second opened in rural Berkeley County, South Carolina. This site was chosen because South Carolina had been the second state to make limitations on the number of children part of its state public health program after a survey revealed 25 percent of infant deaths occurred in mothers deemed unfit for pregnancy. (These terms: Unfit, Feeble-minded, Poor, Poverty Stricken, Urban, Welfare, Disease Stricken, and the like have been used as code words to refer to the so-called African American since the end of Chattel Slavery.)
“The BCFA members voted unanimously at a special January 29, 1942, meeting to change the organization’s name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. By then, BCFA had 34 state league affiliates. The state leagues followed suit in changing their name and bylaws. Particularly, the New York State Federation for Planned Parenthood’s old bylaws stipulated that the object was: To develop and organize on sound eugenic, social and medical principles, interest in and knowledge of birth control throughout the State of New York as permitted by law [emphasis added]. The new bylaws replaced birth control with planned parenthood. Eugenics was dropped in 1943 because of its unpopular association with the German government’s race-improving eugenics theories.”
– Robert G. Marshall and Charles A. Donovan, Blessed are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 24-25.
Joice Heth, enslaved African woman whose birthplace was reported to be on the isle of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. She was boldly advertised as “the 161 year old nursemaid to George Washington when he was an infant, The Father of Our Country to be.” – Bethel Historical Society
This brings us back to Ota Benga and others like him. Physicians and Scientists were dependent on slavery not just for economic reasons but also for clinical material. Even after chattel slavery had ended, persons like Saartjie Baartman, the first video vixen if you will, Henry Moss, whose leprosy prompted him to exhibit himself, Joice Heth, who racists claimed was the 161-year-old “Mammy” of George Washington and many others were put on display, to argue the “inferiority” and “animalistic” behavior of Blacks.
Finally, Ota’s story is important also to the understanding of the Institution of Chattel Slavery beyond the cotton fields, for in knowledge of what the business of slaveholding was like is a deeper understanding of the magnitude of its influence on American Society. The Slave Market and the “business” of owning slaves was about more than Plantation Life but was a very well thought out and strategic system that bled into every fabric of American life.
Yecheilyah (e-see-lee-yah) is an Author, Blogger, and Poet of nine published works including work in progress and short inspirational guide “Keep Yourself Full.” Learn more by exploring Yecheilyah’s writing on this blog and her website at yecheilyahysrayl.com. Renaissance: The Nora White Story (Book One) is her latest novel and is available now on Amazon.com.