Fair Practice

By focusing on the exhibition of the pygmy Ota Benga, author Jane Cutler exposes the institutional racism of the 1904 World's Fair in her children's novel The Song of the Molimo

One afternoon in New York City, while having brunch with an old college friend, children's book author Jane Cutler ran down a list of concerns she wanted to address in her next book. "Up at the top were questions of race and racism," she says during a phone interview with the RFT, "because I am completely convinced that race and racism have shaped us, not only shaped the public discourse but shaped each and every one of us in serious ways."

From her home in San Francisco, Cutler recreates the list she presented to her friend: "Gender politics was on my mind. Technology and science, and the uses and abuses of both of those. I was also particularly interested in questions of human intelligence. I am utterly persuaded that we do ourselves a great disservice by seeing intelligence as a single thing. Then the whole issue of heredity vs. environment, nature vs. nurture -- questions that for anyone who has been a parent and raised children," as Cutler has, "become important questions to at least have an opinion about."

After Cutler had run down her list, her friend shook her head and said, "You can't do that in a children's book."

Yet Cutler had discovered a central character and a historical setting through which, she believed, she could present those issues: the pygmy Ota Benga and the St. Louis 1904 World's Fair.

In terms of setting, the World's Fair has all of the wonders necessary for simulating a child's imagination, but the story of Ota Benga seems a story too complex, too tragic for the juvenile audience for whom Cutler writes. The real Ota Benga was a Bushman living in the Congo at the turn of the century whose entire family was murdered by a rival tribe. Held in captivity by another tribe loyal to the infamous King Leopold II of Belgium, Ota Benga was discovered by a missionary/explorer in search of pygmies to be "exhibited" at the 1904 fair. Ota Benga lived at the fair with other tribal people brought to St. Louis to reside in "authentic" villages and serve as proof of the superiority of the white race. After St. Louis, Ota Benga again became an exhibit subject, caged for a time in the primate house of the Bronx Zoo with an orangutan. Several forward-thinking charitable institutions eventually achieved his release, but he was never to return to his African home. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the heart in Lynchburg, Va., in 1916.

Not exactly a tale for children, especially given Cutler's criteria for juvenile fiction directed at ages 10-14. "I am writing for an age group where my basic job is to present a book that will leave a child feeling that he or she can be hopeful. Children's writers have a mandate to be hopeful, and if you don't have a personality that can fit into that mandate, you really can't write for children. The resolution of a children's book is almost always a hopeful resolution."

So in crafting The Song of the Molimo (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 180 pages, $16), Cutler admits, "The rest of Ota Benga's story was not where I wanted to go." Ota Benga remains a pivotal figure, but Cutler has created an engaging, wide-eyed boy from Kansas, 12-year-old Harry Jones, to serve as the story's protagonist. It is through Harry's eyes that readers experience the marvels of the fair and come into a surprising and revealing relationship with the African pygmy. It is through Harry that readers discover that not only is Ota Benga a proud, intelligent and noble man, the "scientific" principles on which much of the fair is based are falsehoods.

Cutler, who reveals her political leanings when she tells of how she first read of the excellent biography Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo by Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume in the Progressive, is not shy about calling The Song of the Molimo a subversive book: "I hope all my books are subversive books. There are very few children's books written that aren't subversive that are worth reading.

"It is a subversive book, but with this material it's kind of facile because the fair -- as glorious as the whole thing was -- it's easy to subvert. It's easy to see that this is a massive virtual reality where everything is under control, everything is perfect, everything is understood, and where white middle-class and upper- middle-class can go and congratulate themselves on how terrific they are and be reinforced in their notion of linear progress and manifest destiny and the superiority of one race above another."

Although such attitudes sound as if they are from a distant time, the publication of The Bell Curve a few years ago reinforced Cutler's sense of purpose. "If any motivation to keep working on the research for this book ever flagged -- which it did; I'm basically not a researcher -- the Bell book got me going again. It was shocking to realize that what I was working with in the material of 1904 is presented all over again with not only the same thinking but the same language."

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