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."

As Cutler's themes are sophisticated and complex, so are her cast of characters, who are both fictional and historical. Besides Ota Benga, Cutler's most appealing historical figure is the photographer Jessie Beals, who, as Ota Benga confronts Harry's notions of what makes a man, challenges Victorian views of what makes a woman. Cutler says that Beals was such a compelling character for her that "one of my struggles with the book was to sit on her and not let her take the book over because she was determined to be front-and-center all the time."

Cutler believes her mixing of fact and fiction is appropriate, especially in relation to the setting for the story. "What better way to construct a book about the fair," she suggests, "when the fair itself was a mixture of fact and fiction that nobody could sort out? No one could sit down and say what was real and what was unreal. The book becomes a metaphor for the fair because it takes the same position. I am going to present you with wonders, some of which are real and some of which are illusory."

But also not unlike the fair, as Cutler attempts to put her list of concerns into a small children's book, there is more here than can be fully absorbed. Cutler overreaches, so that the emotional resonance she hopes to achieve from the relationship between Harry and Ota Benga is diminished because there are so many sideshow distractions.

Yet also not unlike the fair, there are still many marvels to be appreciated, not least of all the travails of her plucky protagonist Harry. For despite the presence of Ota Benga, this is Harry's story, and Cutler hopes that it's his vision readers carry with them. "I hope they take from the book the lesson that Harry took home from the fair. I hope their eyes are opened in a way that they can look past stereotypes. I hope they experience what Harry experienced. I hope they experience a song of molimo of their own -- an optimistic, beautiful rendering of what it means to be human, and what it means to be human in the world and in your heart. I hope they can look past, as he was able to do, the commercialism and the boosterism, the whole superstructure that's built on subjugating and vilifying other people."

Jane Cutler speaks at the St. Louis County Library Headquarters Auditorium, 1640 S. Lindbergh, at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4, and participates in the Missouri Historical Society's Book Fair from 2-5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 6.

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