Wednesday, August 19, 2015

7 Questions With Pamela Newkirk, Author of Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Pamela Newkirk is an award-winning journalist, a professor of journalism, and a director of undergraduate studies at New York University. She is the author of Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, which won the National Press Club Award for Media Criticism, and the editor of Letters from Black America. She lives in New York City.

1.      How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
My dad was an antiques dealer and collected black memorabilia -- vintage posters, photographs, rare books, postcards and letters -- that had been tucked in bureaus and trunks acquired in estate sales. The ephemera of early black life was all around me and I became fascinated by the lost history -- by the many influential people and movements that were not included in history books. When I discovered the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which was founded by someone like my father who valued the ephemera of black life, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. 

2.      What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?
It has played a very meaningful role in my life and has taught me the value of cherishing family history which feeds into our collective history. Unfortunately much of the history of African Americans and other marginalized people is left out of the historical narrative. For so long their artifacts were  not valued by major institutions and, as a result, they became devalued by African Americans themselves.  

3.      How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?
While SPECTACLE is solely a historical work, all of my previous books have a historical dimension. My first book, Within the Veil: Black Journals, White Media explores the efforts by African American journalists to work in mainstream newsrooms, beginning during the Civil War. .However most of the book addresses contemporary issues. That was followed by two epistolary collections. The last, Letters from Black America, includes 250 letters penned by African Americans from the 1700s to 2008. The correspondents include slaves, surgeons, soldiers, parents, politicians and is a multidimensional portrait of black life in letters. 

4.      Why is studying/knowing history important?
Because it enables us to recognize progress or regression. Hopefully we won't continue to make the same mistakes.  It is the foundation that generation after generation builds on. 

5.      What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about and why?
The early twentieth century was fascinating. Cities like New York were becoming beacons of art, culture, architecture and attracting tens of thousands of immigrants from around the world,  bringing with them their languages, customs, and culture, Also new disciplines, like anthropology, were being created. A truly fascinating period and historians have only scratched the surface. There's so much more to unearth.

6.       Tell us about your book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga?
SPECTACLE is the story of a young Congolese man who in 1906 made national and global headlines after he was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo Monkey House, at times with an orangutan. He had been captured in the Congo and was held in the zoo against his will. This episode illuminates racial attitudes at the dawn of the twentieth century in one of the world's most progressive cities. It also shows how deeply pernicious attitudes about Africans were embedded in science, in media and in popular culture. Also, a century later, the entire episode had been sanitized and the man who most exploited Ota Benga was depicted in accounts as his friend and savior.

7.       It is a story that few people are aware of.  Why is it important today? 
This episode reveals the progress we've made in a century, but also exposes the roots of outlandish beliefs that had been grounded in science, and  that linger still.  Ota Benga's exhibition was not the creation of one bad egg. There was a wide web of complicity among some of the city's most eminent men and institutions, including The New York Times, the mayor, leading scientists, along with tens of thousands of New Yorkers. Nearly a quarter-million people flocked to the zoo to see a diminutive caged African in the monkey house.

Also, it was important to correct the historical record. 

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