Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

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Ota Benga, a young African man, was featured as an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, the New York Zoological Gardens displayed him in its Monkey House, caging him 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 and the international controversy it inspired. Using primary historical documents, Pamela Newkirk traces Ota’s tragic existence, from the Congo to St. Louis to New York and finally to Lynchburg, Virginia, where he lived out the remainder of his short life. Spectacle simultaneously explores New York City during the early years of the twentieth century, a racially fraught era that led to a rising tide of political disenfranchisement and social scorn for African Americans.