Friday, June 26, 2020

Human Zoos: America's Forgotten History of Scientific Racism (John West, 2018)

Human Zoos examines the horrifying history of the American effort to dehumanize an entire class of people in the name of science. In the 1900’s leading men of science from Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia University were stating that Africans were midway between an orangutan and human being, so now 100 years later it should not come as much of a surprise that many people still cling to these racist notions of European superiority and African inferiority.

The film begins in 1859, three months after Charles Darwin published his book The Origins of Species. Here we see how American promoter PT Barnum unveiled a new attraction at his popular museum in New York City. It featured what was described as the “what is it” or “man monkey”. Visitors were told that the creature had been captured by hunters in Africa who discovered a race of beings roving amongst the trees and branches like apes and monkeys. It was claimed that this creature was a connecting link between African blacks and lower animals. However, in reality, Barnum’s so-called “man monkey” was an African American man named William Henery Johnson. Johnson spent much of his life on stage as an evolutionary missing link, and sometimes even in a cage.

In September 1906, nearly two hundred and fifty thousand people gathered to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Here they lined up to see a new exhibit in the Zoo’s Monkey House, but it was no monkey on display it was a man by the name of Ota Benga. Benga was a pygmy from the African Congo and shockingly he was exhibited in a cage alongside monkeys.

As you can start to imagine, these were no isolated incidents of blatant racism but rather just two accounts of people being put on display and touted as “missing links” between man and ape. These public displays were arranged by those of the most elite members of the scientific community and were promoted by the leading American newspapers of the time. In this film, you witness how much of the racism seen in today’s society stems from this shocking past. However, we also hear of the courageous African-American ministers in New York City who tried to stop what was going on.

Human Zoos also attempts to expose how some organizations are still trying to cover up their involvement in what happened and re-write the past. --DH