Pamela Newkirk lectures on Ota Benga to conclude Erasure series

Megan Hays, Senior Writer

Pamela Newkirk spoke on April 11 about an incident that occurred in 1906, when a young African person, Ota Benga, was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo, to conclude the Griot Institute for Africana Studies’ series, “Erasure: Blackness and the Fight Against Invisibility.” Newkirk is an esteemed media scholar, author, award-winning journalist, professor of journalism and director of undergraduate studies in New York University’s (NYU) Arthur Carter Journalism Institute.


Ota Benga, a young man from the Congo, was brought to the United States to first be featured in the St. Louis World Fair. Two years later, he was brought to the Bronx Zoo to be featured in the monkey house. Newkirk’s most recent book “Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga” visits this event and seeks to highlight the systematic erasure of Benga from his own story.


“He, as a person with a voice, was pretty much erased from his own story and instead, the people who most exploited him had the final say on what had happened to him,” Newkirk said.


Newkirk wanted to delve deeper into the concept of race in the Northern region of the United States, as so much has already been written about race in Southern states. By doing so, Newkirk recognizes that the North is not removed from the bigotry often associated with the South, and that racism is present everywhere in America.


“Until we fully grasp the ideas that are embedded in all of our institutions around race, we are never going to understand why we continue to see these acts of injustice and hatred,” Newkirk said.


The state of Virginia recently installed a historical marker for Benga, which can be seen as an act of resistance to erasure. However, much still needs to be done to help with these persistent racial attitudes, according to Newkirk.


“So much about history has been erased or sanitized, I think there is a greater appreciation for the fuller story. I think it is hard to accept the full story for some people, but it is coming whether we like it or not,” Newkirk said.


Newkirk has been a journalist since she was in high school, attributing the Watergate Scandal during former President Richard Nixon’s term as the biggest influence propelling her into the field. In addition to being a professor of journalism at NYU, she previously worked at four news organizations, one being New York Newsday where her team won a Pulitzer prize.


“I was inspired by the role journalists play in the preservation of democracy. We need journalists more than ever today, as we are watching daily assault on all of our institutions. Journalism has been a life-long inspiration and calling for me,” Newkirk said. “You are the future leaders. If we’re not having these critical conversations like places at Bucknell, what hope is there to move forward?”


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