n September 1905, two men discovered the Magnetic South Pole in Antarctica. Mahatma Gandhi promoted the non-violence movement in South Africa. And in New York City, a quarter of a million people went to the Bronx Zoo, where a startling new exhibit had opened — a man in the Monkey House.
They didn’t view him as a man, however. Ota Benga, a pygmy from the African Congo, was regarded as a “missing link.” Although it’s seldom taught in history classes, Benga was only one of thousands of indigenous peoples displayed throughout America in the early 20th century.
Touted as examples of the “lower” stages of human evolution, they were publicly dehumanized with the enthusiastic support of the most elite members of the scientific community with relatively few people batting an eye.
“Human Zoos” is a multi-award-winning documentary exploring the startling story of what happened to Benga, how African-American ministers and other people of faith tried to push back, how government attempted to breed a better race in America through “eugenics” and how independent-minded people challenged such abuses.
The film will be screened for free at 3 p.m. on Sunday, at First Baptist Church in Athens. The film’s director, Dr. John West, will host a question-and-answer session following the conclusion of the 50-minute film.
“The fact that very few Americans know about the history of social Darwinism and scientific racism in their own country drove me to want to tell this story,” West said. “I think it’s hard for us to learn from the mistakes of the past if we don’t know what they are.”
West said he has enjoyed screening the film before live audiences at venues from Detroit to Calgary.
“I look forward to interacting with people and hearing their responses and learning from their own stories. I’m honored to be asked to screen the film during Martin Luther King Day weekend in Athens.”
Organizers of the film’s Athens screening stress that the documentary is not a church-centered event.
“This is not a film about religion,” said local physician Bruce Woodall, who invited West to Athens. “It’s not a preaching film. We want this to be an open conversation.”
Woodall likened his first viewing of “Human Zoos” to the first time he read “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“Anne Frank gave us a mental image of what it meant to be persecuted,” Woodall said. “But who’s ever heard of Ota Benga? No one has, and that to me is an injustice. He suffered from the same ideas that would give us the Holocaust. Subtle ideas are alive and well. We have to learn how to recognize them. I hope watching this film raises our sensitivity to recognizing bad ideas even when they’re disguised.”
First Baptist Church is at 105 S. Carroll St. Free child care for children pre-K and under will be provided for those who call 903-714-7649 in advance. The film trailer is at .www.HumanZoos.org/Athens