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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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