Repressive Human Zoos
The modern age can boast many advances. Technological, travel, conveniences, communication. All of these things are fascinating testaments to changing times. It is not just things that change with the passing decades. Attitudes and behavior change as well. We can agree racism is abhorrent, but if you were to take a trip back to the early 20th century, you would have found pattern of behavior that suggested racism was simply the norm. We are fortunate that so many inspirational people worked tirelessly to fight for equal rights.
No better example of the racist hatred experienced by so many comes from human zoos. Human zoos are exactly what they sound like. Humans, often Africans and indigenous peoples displaying their cultural dress, were put in caged exhibits. Left standing there for others to gawk at, these people felt the true meaning of dehumanization. This represented the true feeling of superiority those who imprisoned these poor humans. This is very disturbing to us nowadays, but in the early to mid 1900s, it was a means of cruel entertainment. It was still in somewhat common practice by the 1950s. Indigenous peoples and Africans were often abducted or sold, presented to the public as humans who were more like animals, and were rarely compensated outside of being fed.
It was not just traveling circuses that were guilty of this disgusting practice. Even well established zoos had their own human exhibits, as well. Just prior to the 20th century, the Cincinnati Zoo kept one hundred Sioux Native Americans at the zoo for three months, all contained in a village the zoo had created that was supposed to mock the one the Native Americans originally came from.
In 1906, anthropologist Madison Grant, who was the head of the New York Zoological Society, put his own spin on the human zoo. Grant put Congolese pygmy Ota Benga, on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Ota did not have his own exhibit; rather, he was put into the primate exhibit where he was put to the task of carrying around chimps and other primates. He would often shoot his bow and weave baskets alongside the orangutans. Eugenicist and zoo director William Hornaday labeled Ota, “The Missing Link”, and although a few passersby mentioned the human and ape dwelling was not natural, most never objected and remained entertained by Ota’s entrapment.