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Shannon Williams

Shannon Williams

I recently learned of a man who — 100 years after his death — unknowingly served as a reminder of the ugliness of this world, particularly for Africans, Native Americans and Asians.

Ota Benga was an Mbuti man from what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Customary of his tribe, Benga was around 4 feet, 11 inches tall, and his teeth were filed to sharp points.

Benga’s early life in the Congo was marred with tragedies, including the violent killing of his wife and children by the Force Publique. It is unclear exactly how, but an American businessman by the name of Samuel Phillips Verner took Benga from his native land and brought him to the United States to participate in a “cultural evolution display” at the World’s Fair Louisiana Purchase Exposition. In the late 1800s and well into the 1950s, Americans and Europeans replicated the homelands of select Africans, Native Americans and people of Asian descent and housed them at zoos.

Benga was on display daily for onlookers to gawk at. While at the Bronx Zoo, he was placed in cages with apes and made to carry chimpanzees around.

People looked at him as if he was a foreign creature; they pointed and they laughed.

Benga wasn’t the only one. Women of different backgrounds were in enclosed fences carrying their children. Again, people stared, they heckled and they giggled with glee.

There were even instances of small children walking around inside the displays, as spectators watched in amazement. Occasionally, a spectator would give the children something to eat, and they watched each bite that was taken.

Such acts were deplorable. Inhumane. Unjust.

These human zoos remained open decades after the abolition of slavery.

Eventually, the Colored Baptist Ministers Conference protested treatment of individuals like Benga, and the “exhibits” in America eventually closed for good. Benga was “free to roam” the zoo — the only home he knew on American soil. Crowds continued to follow him in antagonizing manners. At some point, Benga moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he tried to assimilate, even attending school briefly and capping his pointed teeth. His efforts did little to mend his broken heart from missing his homeland and enduring years of humiliation and being treated as inferior to human beings, yet comparable to animals.

On March 20, 1906, Benga built a ceremonial fire, reminiscent of his home in the Congo. He uncapped his teeth and, with a stolen gun, Benga shot himself in the chest.

One hundred years after Benga’s suicide, I can’t help but ponder the present state of African-Americans. I find myself drawing clear parallels to how minorities like Benga were treated back then to how we treat one another and ourselves today.

Back then, Whites forced Africans, Native Americans and Asians from their native lands, and they exploited our people in various ways. Today, however, we exploit ourselves. Look at some of the garbage we see on reality television shows; so many stereotypes are perpetuated, yet it is OK for those involved, because they get fame and money for their actions. But the self-exploitation is not solely what we see on television — it is much deeper. Every day, we limit ourselves significantly, because we fail to do the necessary work to enhance our own lives.

On a regular basis, we get calls for help at the Recorder. People in the community call us wanting to know how they can find a job, what they can do about their felony conviction and even how they can obtain help paying their bills. Oftentimes, I like to take these sorts of calls, because I want to be as helpful as possible, but I also want to know how successful the Recorder was in helping them. You see, when the Recorder receives calls for help, we help. We give people information on organizations like our neighbors at PACE who help ex-offenders transition back into society. We also tell them about the Edna Martin Christian Center that is a wonderful Center for Working Families facility. And we even tell them about Connect2Help 2-1-1, which serves as a liaison between people who need help and entities that provide help. By calling 2-1-1 or reaching out to the other organizations I mentioned, people take the first step toward self-sufficiency. So after providing people with resources for help, I occasionally follow up with the individuals to see what strides have been made. More often than not, I get some lame excuse why those in need didn’t get help. Generally, the root problem is not organizations like PACE, Edna Martin or 2-1-1; rather, the problem lies in the individuals who don’t put forth the necessary efforts toward helping themselves. Instead, they‘d rather walk around with a tray and have people give them what they need. Some want a constant handout rather than a hand up.

One’s constant desire for handouts is problematic and will get you nowhere fast. At some point, enough has to be enough, and I am vocal with my comments.

“I get it,” I told one woman, who did not contact any of the places my staff and I suggested to her. “You had a hard life; many of us have, but at what point do you say to yourself, ‘I deserve to treat me better’? At what point will you utilize the services available to help you help yourself?”

Is it easy? No. Will the process be long? Perhaps, but the alternatives are far less rewarding.

As a people, we have to stop allowing others to take care of us. Benga was given food and even shelter inside a cage with animals. But all he wanted was to be free. I imagine if he was alive today and having lived the type of life he lived, he would take full advantage of his freedom. Even during his actual life, Benga went to school, learned English and began work at a tobacco company — all of that after literally cohabitating with monkeys and apes.

There are no excuses today for not having some level of education. There are no excuses not to work. People who came before us and experienced significantly worse things didn’t use their misfortunes as an excuse not to advance. Rather, they used their misfortunes as motivation to advance. It would be wise for many people to adopt that way of thinking today.


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