Mbye Otabenga: Animality and the Environmental Politics Human Zoos, 1904-1906

by Christelle Jasmin

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This project locates the animalization of Mbye Otabenga’s blackness, via the his exhibition at the St Louis World’s Fair and the Bronx Zoo from 1904-1906, as the site of ecological violence. The historically relevant actors include the missionary who purchased him, Samuel Phillips Verner, and the then director of the Bronx Zoo,  William T. Hornaday. Drawing from understandings of black bodies as fungible, blackness as nonbeing or animal, and blackness as a state of perpetual enslavement this projects suggests, as Stephen Nathan Haymes does that “(post) settler-plantation ecologies are ‘death-bounded ecologies’ that conspire with ‘colonial matrix of power’ to diminish the social vitality or life force of African- descended black communities in the New World”.  This work posits that the conservationist posture of zoological gardens help to render invisible the ecological violence of colonialism and racial capitalism. By conducting this experiment in reading human zoos through the lens of black animality or non being this project hopes to approach the following questions: How can historians reorient their research methods to make space for the ways in which environmental harm cannot always be isolated into a singular event? What ideological lessons do Zoological Gardens and their legacies of exhibiting humans teach the public about confinement of the other? And In what ways does a reframing of human zoo through the lens of black animality contribute to understandings of the intersections between environmental justice and slavery’s afterlife? This projects hopes to contribute to the connections being built between environmental justice and other matters of social justice such as prison abolitionist  and anti racist movements. The strength of our movements rest on the ability to create strong solidarities both interpersonally and analytically.

Author Biography:

Christelle Jasmin is a scholar-activist, and American Studies graduate student at Rutgers University. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Studies with a concentration in Development and minor in Women’s and Gender studies. Generally, Christelle’s research is focused on unpacking theoretical throughlines between critical animal studies, carceral studies and anti-racist movement building. As an undergraduate she wrote a creative auto-theoretical thesis entitled Criminal Animality: Food Justice, Prison Abolition and Black Feminisms. Christelle has since been engaged in many conversations surrounding eco-feminisms, food justice, and carceral justice and looks to continue this work via a project entitled Mbye Otabenga: Animality and the Environmental Politics of Human Zoos, 1904-1906. Christelle was drawn to the opportunity to elaborate on the relationship between human zoos and environmental justice by both her academic background and her personal relationship to New York’s Zoological Garden.

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This projects’ primary undertaking is to demonstrate how human zoos are ecologically violent entities, using Mbye Otabenga as its central case study. In doing so this project hopes to expose the ecological violence of both human and nonhuman zoos. The secondary aim of this project is to bring an accessible reading (to the best of my ability) of black feminist humanisms* to the field of environmental justice and conversely to ‘people’ black feminist theorizing of the “black body”.

*Classical humanism is a philosophical movement birth out of the renaissance period that is concerned with ideas of humanity, man, and the human condition. (Think Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man) Black feminist humanism scholars are critical of these traditional ideas and have reanalyzed some these concepts (ex. Who is meant by “human”?) through the lens of race and gender. In doing so they offer valuable insights into black life and the organization of modern society.



Otabenga + Human Zoo:  In this section, I will supply a brief history of Otabenga’s life and the circumstances surrounding his trafficking and enslavement. In doing so, I will also situate for readers his life in its geopolitical context.

Newkirk, Pamela. 2015. Spectacle: the Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

First edition. New York, NY: Amistad, an imprint of


Pamela Newkirk writes this award-winning biography of the life and times of Mbye Otabenga, the Congolese man who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and exhibited at the St. Louis World Fair and the Bronx Zoo. In addition to explicating the circumstances of Otabenga’s life, Newkirk also lays out for readers the Samuel Verner life, Otabenga’s trafficker, who was long hailed as a hero. Verner who began as a missionary reinvents himself as a scientist and scholar of African culture determined to make his fortune extracting nature resources from the Congo. Otabenga included. This book will help to ground my project in the details of Otabenga’s life, provide direction in my search of primary sources, and help provide the social context of the time.

Blanchard, Pascal. 2008. Human Zoos : Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empires  Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Human Zoos: Science and Spectacle in the Age of Colonial Empire tells the story of human zoos as key symbols of the colonial era, particularly as scientific racism builds into a ‘spectacularization’ of the other. This book will help situate the project in the context of the human zoo as a colonial phenomenon that made clear the existence of certain people as spectacle.  

(The After Life of Slavery + (Black Animality ÷ Black Fungibility): In this section, I will situate Otabenga and the practice of human exhibition in the context of Saidiya Hartman’s conception of the afterlife of slavery and Black fungibility. The afterlife of slavery is characterized as the perpetual racial violence slavery inflicts of contemporary society. Black fungibility is the idea that blackness is interchangeable and replaceable commodity. Blackness as the void against which all others are defined. Hartman wages a critique against the Marxist idea that a critique of capitalism is enough to fully understand the dynamics of slavery. This will allow me to introduce black animality (as an EJ translation of sorts of black fungibility) as it has been theorized so far. (Literature making the case for conceptions of black animality are quite new in post humanist theory so I will use what is out there and push forward my own reading ) This section will end with an analysis of the Otabenga using black animality to explore the ecological violence inflicted on him.

Hartman, Saidiya V. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America  New York: Oxford University Press. (Introduction and Chap 1)

Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection is a provocative book that explores terror and the roll of pleasure in black subjection during slavery. In this book she elaborates on this idea of fungibility which will be extremely useful in situating Otabenga’s positionality.

Yusoff, Kathryn. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None.  Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kathyrn Yusoff beautifully explains to readers that geology is not politically or racially neutral. She examines how foundational to geology as a science are the extractive economies of colonialism and slavery that render black flesh along side gold and other natural materials to have been “materially and epistemically made through the recognition and extraction of their inhuman properties.” (pg 3) This book explores the afterlife of geology using black feminist theory. This book will help me to formulate how black flesh is a resource that undergirds the value places on other material resources by colonial logics.

 Hartman, Saidiya V. 2008. Lose Your Mother : a Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route  1st pbk. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

In this book, Hartman tells the experience of retracing a slave route in Ghana and weaves in the story of the transatlantic slave trade. She tells the experience of feeling herself to be the slave as a stranger among ‘kin’. In this book she theorizes the afterlife of slavery. This will serve as a key text for in unpacking that theory.

Zakiyyah Iman Jackson. 2013. “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism.” Feminist Studies 39 (3): 669–85.

Kim, Claire Jean. 2015. Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Claire Jean Kim’s book is a major contribution to animal studies. Her main feat is in elaborating the on the racialization of the animal and animalization of the race. This is a key text in building the case for black animality.  

Johnson, Lindgren. 2018. Race Matters, Animal Matters: Fugitive Humanism in African America, 1840-1930  New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

Racial Capitalism + Environmental Justice: This section is largely dependent upon the the findings of the previous two findings. Below is a list of readings which may be helpful in the case of a variety of outcomes. In large part, this section will use the work of scholars who have established the connection between racial capitalism & environmental justice to explore the ways in which human zoos and nonhuman zoos are both ideologically and materially violent to the natural world.  

Pulido, Laura. 2017. “Geographies of Race and Ethnicity II: Environmental Racism, Racial Capitalism and State-Sanctioned Violence.” Progress in Human Geography 41 (4): 524–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132516646495.

In this piece, Pulido argues that environmental racism is constituent of racial capitalism. The piece explores environmental racism as state sanctioned violence. This will be a staple piece in tying together the above sections.

Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital 1st edition. New York: Verso.

In this book, Moore argues that capitalism is a way of organizing nature, he draws on environmentalist, feminists, and Marxist thought. He explains that capitalism greatest strength is to make cheap. This book can help me argue that the human zoo is a technology of this system looking to continuously devalue the labor and existence of black people.

Axelle Karera. 2019. “Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics.” Critical Philosophy of Race 7 (1): 32–56. https://doi.org/10.5325/critphilrace.7.1.0032.

In this article, Karera engages in the ongoing debate around the apolitical nature of the Anthropocene. She critiques the Anthropocene, as it currently conceived, for its disavowal of racial antagonisms. This piece is critical in in furthering an analysis of race and class within EJ.

Kay Anderson, “Animals, Science, and Spectacle in the City,” in Animal Geographies: Place, Politics, and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands (New York, NY: Verso, 1998), 27–50.

This piece is a chapter within a broader anthology. In this particular chapter, Anderson Kay discusses the way in which zoos present a social construction of nature that reveal more about the attitudes towards that humans have. This piece will be helpful in critically analyzing the roles of zoos in society.

Davis, Angela Y. (Angela Yvonne). 2003. Are Prisons Obsolete?  New York: Seven Stories Press.

This book is staple piece among prison abolitionist thinkers. It has the potential to this project think about confinement more broadly as I attempt to build a case for the ideological and material destruction of zoos. There is potential to use this piece’s reading of prisons and see if they maintain their salience against zoos.

Pellow, David Naguib. 2017. What Is Critical Environmental Justice? What Is Critical Environmental Justice? Newark: Polity Press.

This book is critical an important to building the connections between ej and other social justice movements including BLM and prison abolition. Building these connection is the crux of my project and a few chapters in this book have the potential to help me wrap up my point.

Sylvia Wynter, “1492: A New World View,” in Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas: A New World View, ed. Rex Nettleford and Vera Lawrence Hyatt (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, n.d.).

In this piece, Sylvia Wynter, a key thinking in Black feminist humanisms, thinks through the colonial moment as a key to to the development of a ‘new species inclusive’ account of humanness. “Wynter argues that the devaluation of blackness served a specific material purpose of labor and the colonization of Indian land,..” This piece will be helpful in building the case between black fungibility/inhumanity/animality and the colonial project.

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