Monday, July 2, 2012

Human Zoos

I just finished reading Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. I was hooked on this book from the first paragraph. This book has all the ingredients I like in a novel - a strong story, well-developed characters, a good sense of place and atmosphere (Berlin in the late 1930s and early 1990s), concise prose, and it's a mystery.

However, one small detail in the book kept troubling me. Did so-called human zoos exist? In the book, there's a scene at Hamburg's Hagenbeck Tierpark (Animal Park) where Samoan and African people are exhibited alongside elephants, tigers, and apes. After some research, I discovered that during the 19th and early 20th centuries, "exotic" people were frequently exhibited in zoos across Europe and North America. 

In Germany, Carl Hagenbeck's exhibitions of Africans, Eskimos, and Samoans in their "natural" state were extremely popular during the Nazi era. Likewise, at the Bronx Zoo, Ota Benga, a Congolese man, was exhibited to enthusiastic audiences each afternoon during the summer of 1906. Sometimes, reality is more unbelievable than fiction.

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