Education - Human Exhibits in the Zoo

Having the opportunity to see exotic creatures in their "natural" habitat is both alluring and frightening. A barrier separating you from wild animals - lions, tigers, and bears- helps to lessen the fear, if not completely removing it. I wonder if the same feelings of mystery, excitement, and trepidation were the driving force for people who visited human exhibits throughout the United States and Europe. The practice of displaying people for entertainment and profit was rather commonplace in the late 19th century through the 20th century. Human exhibits were featured as recently as 2007 in Australia; albeit the participants were volunteers who were able to return to their homes at the end of each day. A far cry from the internment and overall plight of indigenous and "primitive" people that was prevalent in centuries past.

I bring this to your attention not because I foresee a resurgence in human zoos, but because I believe a significant number of people of color have not heard these stories. Historical lessons like these are important, yet they remain unknown to the vast majority of individuals. Our naivete to our history can be attributed, in part, to Eurocentric content taught in our school systems. The curriculum, for example, in a social studies class is not geared toward blacks in America or other non-European groups, nor does it allow for an in-depth exploration of the culture, people or circumstances surrounding the recorded events. The context of these events is vital; without it, we have an incomplete picture. One that is skewed to the perspective of the conqueror, and virtually ignores the conquered.

However, this is not a critique of the educational system nor am I expecting a significant shift in programming toward a more inclusive, expansive, and accurate account of past events. Ultimately, the larger responsibility to understand one's history resides with the individual. 

When I first considered writing a blog, I asked myself what my goals were for each posting. Amongst other things, I knew that I wanted to share stories that would help us to learn about our past. Researching the acts perpetrated against people of color is often a mystifying and painful experience. However, my desire to bring forward information that will help us to grow far outweighs the hurts that often come up when investigating these stories. Today's post (as with so many others) is a heartbreaking, but necessary one.

  Carl Hagenbeck  was a German merchant of wild animals and humans who supplied many European zoos, as well as  P. T. Barnum . He was a pioneer in displaying humans next to animals in human zoos. Source: Wikipedia

Carl Hagenbeck was a German merchant of wild animals and humans who supplied many European zoos, as well as P. T. Barnum. He was a pioneer in displaying humans next to animals in human zoos. Source: Wikipedia

Articles of Curiosity

Over four centuries from the first voyages of discovery, European societies developed an appetite for exhibiting exotic human "specimens."  At the height of its popularity, there were human zoos, also called ethnological expositions, in New York, Chicago, Paris, London, Milan, Barcelona, Warsaw, and Germany. Hundreds of thousands of people visited human zoos created as part of the great international trade fairs.

What started as a wide-eyed curiosity on the part of observers turned into ghoulish pseudo-science in the mid-1800s, as researchers sought out physical evidence for their theory of races. Some people, like Congolese pygmy Ota Benga, were displayed holding animals; suggesting that primitive people were the missing link between the evolved man and animals. Ota was housed and displayed along with other native indigenous specimens of the world, including the Apache prisoner of war Geronimo. These displays often emphasized the cultural differences between Europeans of Western civilization and non-European peoples or with other Europeans who practiced a lifestyle deemed more primitive. 

Sarah Baartman, arguably seen as the epitome of colonial exploitation and racism, was brought to Europe seemingly on false pretenses by a British doctor. Stage-named the "Hottentot Venus," she was paraded around London and Paris, with crowds invited to look at her large buttocks and other features that astonished the onlookers. Sarah died on 29 December 1815.  However, even in death, her exhibition continued. Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren't repatriated and buried until 2002.

Modern Day

Understand that iconic names like Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus have roots in the exploitation of Blacks. One of P.T. Barnum's most famous hoaxes was early in his career. He bought a blind and paralyzed slave for $1,000 who he claimed was 160 years old, and the nurse of George Washington. This lie helped Barnum make a weekly profit of nearly $1,000. Upon the death of Joice Heth in 1836, Barnum sold tickets to the public to view her autopsy. As with Sarah Baartman, Joice Heth was taken advantage of in life and death.

The last human exhibit was presented, less than 60 years ago, in Belgium. The ideas of a racial hierarchy and primitive culture are not relics of the past. They are present today. So what can we learn from the stories of Ota Benga, Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman, Joice Heth, and countless others that were displayed in these exhibits? If nothing else, it should help us to understand the road that we as a people have had to travel to gain a modicum of respect in this world. I believe we are duty bound to know our history, both in American and before our arrival at Jamestown (the Caribbean, Dutch Guiana, and Brazil). It is important that we have the highest respect for ourselves and our community. Human zoos were used as a means to advance the narrative that we are less than others, to be looked at not as humans but as savages, merely present for the entertainment of patrons.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana

I leave you with this thought...I had the opportunity to attend a Cirque du Soleil show last weekend. The production, costumes, acrobatics, and music were phenomenal. All the characters drew me into the story of the insect themed world of Ovo. Throughout the evening and for the next few days, I kept reflecting on one character, in particular, the lady bug. She was a rather rotund woman. While all the other characters performed some physical activity whether acrobatic or comedic, the role of the Lady Bug was to be sassy and sexy, unpredictable and loud, with a tough exterior. And, the woman who played this character was excellent. But I was left with an uneasy feeling. She was the only black person in the cast and her role was based on many of the stereotypes of black women that we see in television and movies today. It seems, even in the insect world, we have a type; one that is used to entertain patrons at a show.  

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