Saturday, September 09, 2006

Pygmy -- Excuse Me!

Friday afternoon’s piece on Oto Benga struck me as really bizarre. Oto Benga was a captive from the Congo area brought to the US for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair who ended up on display in the Bronx Zoo a few years later. Listening to this feature, I had that disturbed feeling I get when someone says in a shocked voice, “You won’t believe the racist joke my coworker told today” and then tells the joke in full.

NPR kept calling the man a Pygmy, which I’ve understood to be one of those terms like “witch doctor” or “gypsy” that’s not very respectful to the people it is being applied to. But what struck me as most strange was the complete lack of context given to the time period when this man was being brought to the US to be put on display. In 1904 the Congo was undergoing the Belgian orchestrated holocaust in which about 10 million Congolese were slaughtered (half the population!). The genocide enriched King Leoplod’s Belgium and was strongly opposed by progressives in the US—including one of my favorites, Mark Twain. An excellent treatment of this horror is given in the book, King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild.

It’s sad to think of listeners now hearing about the more recent bloodletting in the Congo and having no greater historical reference than the story of Oto Benga—a story told on NPR with the smug assurance that our current attitudes about foreign people are so far advanced to those of our backward progenitors living at the beginning of the previous century.

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