Among man’s greatest inhumanities to man is saying one is not a man — merely a beast, a prisoner, a captive. Two stories in the media this week span a century, yet end the same way: with a death that is technically a suicide, but where the hand was powerfully forced.
Pamela Newkirk’s new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga was excerpted here in The Guardian. She explores the life of a Congolese man captured in 1904 and displayed in the monkey house of the Bronx, New York Zoo in 1906. He was forced to live with monkeys and parrots; paraded around; poked, prodded, teased; later left in the cold without proper clothing; and of course viewed as a savage both before and after he rebelled against this treatment. As context, this unfolded less than half a century after slavery was abolished in America, and during the era when Belgium’s King Leopold was cutting off the hands of Ota Benga’s countrymen to scare those who had not yet been maimed into forced labor. In other words, this was a world pretending to be civilized.
As Newkirk points out:
In the sober opinion of progressive men of science, Benga’s exhibition on the hallowed grounds of the New York Zoological Gardens was not mere entertainment – it was educational. They believed Benga belonged to an inferior species; putting him on display in the zoo promoted the highest ideals of modern civilisation. This view had, after all, been espoused by generations of leading intellectuals.Louis Agassiz, the Harvard professor of geology and zoology, who at the time of his death in 1873 was arguably America’s most venerated scientist, had insisted for more than two decades that blacks were a separate species, a “degraded and degenerate race”.
When Ota Benga took his own life, he had been out of the spotlight for years, but even the outreach of caring men and women could not reconcile his soul with the loss of his country and culture.
Flash forward a century and you find Kalief Browder sitting in solitary confinement on Riker’s Island, the notorious New York jail. For years. In fact, he spent three years awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. The police changed their story when they couldn’t find evidence of the crime, and still charged him. Browder refused to plead guilty, even as his teen years became a pastiche of assaults by guards and prisoners, and months alone. Some of his fellow inmates thought he was insane not to plead out, to take time served; to absorb a criminal record in exchange for the chance to be free. What is truly insane is that he was pushed into a fetid cul-de-sac of a justice system and left to rot because he insisted on his honor. His mental breakdown began in prison, and continued after, until he hung himself at his parents’ home.
Browder’s life has already had an impact on policy. As the New York Times put it:
[New York mayor Bill] de Blasio’s administration in December did away with solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds, citing the damaging effects that prolonged isolation can have on their mental stability.
In a statement released on Monday, the mayor said that “Kalief’s story helped inspire our efforts” at Rikers.
“There is no reason he should have gone through this ordeal,” he added, “and his tragic death is a reminder that we must continue to work each day to provide the mental health services so many New Yorkers need.”
Are we now a civilized world, or a world pretending to be civilized? Will we listen to the echoes of the dead and vow to change, or think we have already achieved the humanity we claim? Over time — including this time, our time — society has denied some men and women their humanity; then paused to reflect if and when they “prove” their humanity by snuffing out their own lives. A caged beast snarls. A caged man sometimes takes his own life, especially if the cage seems to follow him even once he is nominally free.
When we consider these men’s lives, is this just the final “spectacle,” or something more meaningful — a chance to truly reflect on the world we have built, to take man-made systems of science and justice gone terribly wrong and re-form them to make them right?