by Carrie Allen McCray, edited and with an introduction by Kevin Simmonds
It is quite possible that, given the many omissions in our history books, you have never heard of Ota Benga. Thanks to the late Carrie Allen McCray and the poet, filmmaker and musician Kevin Simmonds, the history of this man is stamped into Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, a collection of poems by McCray edited and with an introduction by Simmonds.
“From the deep forests of the Congo, to the black churches of Virginia, to the steel cages of the Bronx Zoo, to the hearth of the McCray household, Ota Benga wished only to be seen as a man.” — Nikky Finney
What do “steel cages” have to do with Ota Benga? In the preface written by McCray we learn that he was brought here from the Congo Forest in 1904, and again in 1906 by a missionary. “This was during the frenzied time of anthropologists trying to prove the darker races a lower form of humanity.” In 1904 these humans were exhibited in the St. Louis World’s Fair Anthropology Unit. “Eskimo natives from Alaska, the Ainu from Japan, natives from the Philippines, Indian tribes from America, Zulus, Balubas and ‘Pygmies’ from Africa.’”
When the missionary who brought Ota Benga to America was low on funds, he left Ota Benga at the Museum of Natural History with the evil Henry Bumpus. When Ota protested, Ota ultimately ended up in a cage with an ape in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo. This grotesque “exhibition” was publicized in newspapers, stoking protests. Carrie Allen McCray’s mother’s first husband, born into slavery and a member of the early Pan-African movement, was among the protesters and offered Ota his home to live in and be educated in. Six months later, the husband died and Ota Benga went to an orphanage. But in 1910, he asked to return to the widow, now Mary Hayes Allen. Mary Hayes had married Carrie Allen’s father and had three children, including Carrie. Carrie’s brother, being older than her, had more memories of him than she did and said “He was like a father…friend…teacher…hero, who knew more about the meaning of humanity than the missionary who brought him over here.” Indeed, the Forest People of the Congo were “pacifists, egalitarians, and environmentalists. Our civilized nations are still trying to attain some of the values the Congo Forest People held for thousands of years.” (From the dedication.)
Kevin Simmonds had a special relationship with Carrie McCray while he was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina. She and her sister gave him a key to their home so each time he returned from a late flight from San Francisco where he was completing his dissertation, there was always “a welcoming note and a meal waiting in the microwave. Family.” Simmonds writes “Carrie was a consummate storyteller and teacher and intended this collection to go beyond the personal recollections of her brothers. She wanted to underscore the history that brought Ota from the Congo to Lynchburg, especially the ultimately unbearable loss of family and community in the Congo.”
In 2007 McCray provided Simmonds with her manuscript, which he adapted for a theatrical work that was premiered at the Columbia Museum of Art that year.
“On October 19, 2007, with Carrie center stage, Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, a theatrical work for narrators, singers, dancer, and musical chamber ensemble, premiered a the Columbia Museum of Art. When Simmonds read from the book at my reading series in Sonoma County, CA, WordTemple, he sang from this work. It was an evening of pure duende.
Finally, from Simmonds’ introduction: “Carrie referred to Ota’s voice as always having the quality of a minor key, something unresolved, unsettled. No matter where you are in the chronology in this collection, the imminence of Ota’s suicide is there. Despite the love, acceptance, and opportunities he had in Lynchburg; despite its ample woods that reminded him of his Congo forest; despite everything, he committed suicide on March 20, 1916. He was approximately thirty-three years old.”
Let us turn now to a few poems, the tribute Carrie Allen McCray has created to Ota Benga, and the tribute Simmonds has created to the lives of Ota Benga and Carrie Allen McCray.
OTA’S COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE
In Ota’s dreams, the young girl Kemba is a firefly.
He tries to catch her but she flies away.
In his dreams, he watches Kemba dance
as she danced around the campfire
with other girls during their special feast.
Twelve girls dancing, but he sees only Kemba
whose name means full of grace.
Slim like a fale stalk, walks
smooth dark skin like Ota’s
which she makes more beautiful with dye
from the nkola tree.
Her laughter, a song, her voice,
the whisper of wind.
Ota wants to marry her.
THE BIRTH OF ANTHROPOLOGY
born of prejudice.
exhibits. In the Musee de l’homme,
genitalia of darker women
in pickling jars.
And on this shore,
We hold these truths
to be self-evident
that all men
are created equal.
Anthropologists F.S. Woodworth
and Professor Starr ponder
over pince-nez glasses:
How do barbaric races compare intellectually
with defective Caucasians?
And now for the 1904 World’s Fair,
men, penguin-like in their dark suits and
sit around long tables, listening
to the organizers of the Anthropology Unit.
All are commissioned
to gather men of color
from around the world.
Dr. W. J. McGee predicting this to be
the greatest exhibit. Ever.
Stephen Jay Gould cries out against
these early anthropologists
whose methods appall him.
Of the Third World women
in bell jars, he writes
I saw a little exhibit that provided
an immediate and chilling insight
into nineteenth century mentalite
and the history
Woodworth and Starr
and other anthropologists
focused on the following question:
Are dark-skinned people capable
of discerning the color blue?
The poem “Forest Man” tells us how Ota saw himself, not as an exhibit at the zoo or museum, not as a city or country man, but:
I’m a Forest Man
where me and the wind like brother,
sing a song to Forest….
The last three lines of the poem repeat like a drum beat:
I belong in Forest.
I belong in Forest.
I belong in Forest.
And then, the poem “Into the Woods Alone.” Here are a few lines from that poem.
Moon beckon, say, Come
in woods by self, Ota. Trees bow heads
when I pass, say, Hush, hush, listen.
Wind bring word from Forest.
Forest say, Come home, Ota, come home….
I fall on ground, then sleep. Wake up…
…I’m still here in their woods.
Star of my father, take me home.
Star of my mother, take me home.
Fwela say he take me back, but where Fwela?
People say they send me back, but where
money? I hear choir sing slave song:
I believe I’ll go back home.
Lordy, won’t you help me?
I believe I’ll go back home.
The last poem in the book, “In the Dark of Night” recounts Ota Benga’s suicide on March 20, 1916. Here are some segments:
That night, while the boys were sleeping,
Ota walked toward death, quietly,
deliberately, like the coming of tomorrow,
went across the road into the old shed
behind Mammy Joe’s store, picked up the gun
he had hidden there in the hay.
She found him that morning,
went running across the road to Mama….
The vision of him lying there,
The old grey shed, our place
for hide and seek and eating saucer-sized
sugar cookies Mammy Joe would bring us.
We’d fall laughing onto the hay-covered
floor, clucking chickens strutting around us.
It was here he went, moving me to wonder,
couldn’t there have been a way
to send him home?
I sit now in a different time,
a different place, wondering.
We could have found a way home,
home to the Kasai teeming with fish,
the taste of lush mango, him lying on his back
watching his star blink.
Under his moon. His fire.
Tomorrow, the homegoing.
OTA BENGA UNDER MY MOTHER’S ROOF — POEMS by Carrie Allen McCray, edited with an introduction by Kevin Simmonds, was published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2012. The poems included in this post barely touch the surface. If you’d like to read the book in its entirety, which I strongly recommend, it can be ordered directly from the press here: https://uscpress.com/Ota-Benga-under-My-Mothers-Roof
Kevin Simmonds is a musician and writer originally from New Orleans. He studied music at Vanderbilt University and the University of South Carolina. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Monster I Am Today — Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse, published by Northwestern University Press in 2021.