Mbye Otabenga: Animality and the Environmental Politics Human Zoos, 1904-1906
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.
Project Site Description:
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.
Keywords: race, colonization, african american, global