Why the Heartbreak of Ota Benga Still Resonates Today

Why the Heartbreak of Ota Benga Still Resonates Today

Opinion: Reality television may as well be the modern-day human zoo.

Why the Heartbreak of Ota Benga Still Resonates Today

Photo: Ota Benga, Library of Congress

A little over 100 years ago, Ota Benga, an African brought to America in the early 1900s as a part of an “exposition,” committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart.

Throughout his life, Benga suffered heartache and humiliation at the hands of Europeans who exploited his culture, physical appearance, and perceived lack of intelligence. After today, we probably won’t hear much about Ota Benga in the media, such is the nature of news cycles. Because of the brevity of the modern day headline, it’s important, that in this moment, we reflect upon this cautionary story.



Although we no longer have human zoos today, in learning about Ota Benga, I couldn’t help but to think of today’s version of entertainment, reality shows, and the similarity these modern-day circuses have with the human zoos of 100 years ago. Yesterday, we were paraded around for entertainment by people who looked nothing like us.

Today, we do it to ourselves for the benefit of garnering ratings for television networks.

In reading the stories of those who were considered entertainment in the exhibitions and human zoos of the past, it becomes obvious that the participants, despite inhumane treatment, were aware they were being exploited. Ota Benga, in one instance, is described as using the perception of him as a savage, to get away with acting like one and throwing a chair at somebody’s head after years of pent up frustration over inhumane treatment. Many would do the same after hearing day in and day out that they are inferior.

100 years ago, the “study” of Eugenics was hugely popular in the United States. The practice falsely asserted that any race not conforming to Nordic standards was inferior. The exhibitions that Benga was a part of were intended to prove this theory correct. Despite being treated poorly, Ota Benga did not want to go back to Africa at first, opting to stay in the U.S. until it was too late for him to go back home due to World War I and an inability to find a way to get to Africa by ship.

Not unlike Ota Benga, reality TV stars are often semi-knowingly being exploited by producers despite having the free will to walk away. In the case of VH1's programming, there is a classicism attached to shows like Love and Hip Hop, where many of the stars have a perceived lack of cultural or intellectual depth and often come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

While some watch these shows for genuine entertainment, others watch them to laugh at the perception of the stars' stupidity. It seems obvious that many reality stars take advantage of the fact that we do not expect them to offer anything of real value, and use that expectation to further fuel their shenanigans. How many chairs have we seen fly at a VH1 reunion show? At what point does a reality star become what they have portrayed out of frustration with a society that has made them feel they cannot find a better way to make money? 

What is most alarming about the reality TV show epidemic we face today is that we are the ones who are watching these shows and keeping the culturally devoid characters on television. In the 1700s Saartjie Baartman, known as Hottentot Venus, was exploited for the shape of her bodymost notably the size of her backside and genitals. There are varying points of view of whether or not she was a willing participant in 19th century human zoos. Some accounts suggest that she spoke Dutch fluently, and proclaimed that she was not being held against her will by the promoters of her exhibition. Whether or not that claim is true, one cannot deny the fact that Baartman's exploitation was created by Europeans who considered her to be less than themselves.

Today, reality show participants are unnaturally enlarging their behinds at alarming rates and acting a fool on TV so that an audience of people who should know better than to indulge in the devaluation of their own culture, can gawk. We have been exploited so many times throughout history that we are now doing it to ourselves. 

Time and time again, we see women being treated as objects, men who cannot remain faithful, addictions, evictions, plastic surgery enhancements, and other nonsense being touted as “the norm.” When will it stop for good? Our children and our culture deserve better representation and it’s about time we start boycotting shows that paint us as less than what we are culturally. It’s time we start representing the intelligent aspects of our culture rather than the spectacle, the "victim," and the struggle and despair.

Elizabeth Aguirre is a technology professional with more than 8 years experience working in the software industry. Currently, Elizabeth is pursuing an M.S. in E-commerce at DePaul University and works as a consultant for the National Council of State Boards of Nursing in Chicago. She is on a one-woman mission to empower small business owners through the use of technology. When she is not being a "cool mom" to her daughter Esther, she enjoys tweeting and meditation.



 

 





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