I’m currently reading Spectacle, the telling of the story of Ota Benga, a Congolese man held captive in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo and placed on display in the zoo’s monkey house. This tragic story reveals our ugly history where Americans, by-in-large, believed in the superiority of the White races. But in chapter five, the author talks about another incident, The Brownsville Affair, during that same year. It is this affair that I wish to highlight.
The Brownsville Affair
In late July of that year, there was an altercation between a black member of the infantry division and a white man. The white man was killed. A mob ensued and when it was over, three more lay dead. Fast forward a few weeks into August and suddenly a bartender (white) is killed. The suspicion is instantly laid on the infantry, despite their white officers reporting that every infantry member was in his bed at the time. Evidence was planted to try to incriminate the men. When the men were interrogated, they denied any involvement and of course could not say who had killed the bartender.
But the people of Brownsville continued to accuse the men. And the decision was made to castigate them all for a so-called “conspiracy of silence.” The decision went all the way to President Theodore Roosevelt who signed the order having 167 men dishonorably discharged as punishment for a crime they did not and could not have committed. Here Pamela Newkirk recount Roosevelt’s comments
Despite pleas from black leaders, including Booker T. Washington, Roosevelt would sign the order denying the men–who had been deprived of legal counsel or a hearing–back pay, pensions, and eligibility to serve in the future. Roosevelt, considered a racial moderate for his time, unapologetically defamed the innocent men, saying, “Some of the men were bloody butchers; they ought to be hung.”
Not until Nixon, did this injustice be made right (and then the “justice” did not include any form of restitution.
The Trajectory When We Dehumanize others
Notice the trajectory:
- One person of a group (a minority group) does something wrong.
- Later, another ambiguous thing happens and blame is laid at the feed of an entire population.
- Facts are not sought out but evidence is created and “justice” delivered because “these people” are butchers.
Is it any wonder that such minorities don’t feel particularly warm feelings when thinking about national pride. How could they? We’d like to think we are well beyond the years that we would place a human in a zoo to be gawked at. Indeed, we are. We’d also like to believe we are well beyond the years where we would demonize and be suspicious of an entire population of people. We are not there yet. There might be people who are butchers among the innocent. So, let’s ensure they don’t remain among us and accuse them of a conspiracy of silence for not pointing the guilty out. Let’s keep them all out just to be sure.