Ota Benga under My Mother's Roof: Poems

Ota Benga under My Mother's Roof: Poems

Ota Benga under My Mother's Roof: Poems

Ota Benga under My Mother's Roof: Poems

Synopsis

In Ota Benga under My Mother's Roof, Carrie Allen McCray (1913-2008) uses poignant and personal verse to trace the ill-fated life of the Congolese pygmy who was famously exhibited in the Bronx Zoo in 1906 before being taken in by the McCray family of Lynchburg, Virginia. Rooted in the rich historical and autobiographic context of her own experiences with Benga, McCray offers compelling, dexterous poems that place Benga's story within the racial milieu of the early twentieth century as the burgeoning science of social anthropology worked to classify humans based on race and culture. The theme of this book is a study of humanity, of people of all kinds, in which Benga's vitality becomes the measure against which everyone is measured. With poems that revel in African American signifying, spirituality, and traditional storytelling, McCray's collection establishes a sincere legacy for Ota Benga as she shares her friend's harrowing tale with new generations.

Excerpt

This narrative poem is a tribute to Ota Benga, a strong yet gentle man from the deep Congo Forest. Ota was brought over here to America, first in 1904, and again in 1906 by Samuel Phillips Verner, a Presbyterian minister who served as a missionary to the Congo. This was during the frenzied time of anthropologists trying to prove the darker races a lower form of humanity.

In 1904 members of these “darker races” were brought to America and exhibited in the St. Louis World’s Fair Anthro pology Unit: Eskimo natives from Alaska, the Ainu from Japan, natives from the Philippines, Indian tribes from America, Zulus, Balubas and “Pygmies” from Africa.

In 1906 Verner fell on hard times and left Ota at the Museum of Natural History with its unscrupulous director, Henry Bumpus, who exhibited him. Ota reacted strongly against this so Bumpus contacted Verner, whom Ota called “Fwela” (leader), to come and get him. Verner then placed Ota with William Hornaday, director of the Bronx Zoo, who arranged for Ota to live in a cage with an ape.

The story of the exhibition was in all the newspapers, and African American ministers and others across the nation protested. My mother’s first husband, Professor Gregory Willis Hayes, was one of those protesters. the president of Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, he was also chairman of the National Black Baptist Education Committee. Professor Hayes . . .

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