Noe Valley Voice November 2002

Ota Benga: The Pygmy at the Fair, St. Louis, 1904

By Jane Cutler

The following is an excerpt from Jane Cutler's award-winning novel The Song of the Molimo. As we enter the story, it is the summer of 1904, and 12-year-old Harry Jones has arrived in St. Louis, ready to have the time of his life. The glorious St. Louis World's Fair is in full swing, offering every sort of entertainment and fueling dreams of a new century of limitless progress. Harry thinks his six weeks at the fair will be all fun, but something else is in store for him. From the minute he gets off the train, he is confronted by the cracks in this seemingly utopian world.

The Song of the Molimo, geared for readers ages 10 to 14, explores the relationship between Harry and Ota Benga, an African Pygmy he meets at the fair. (The fictional character is based on a real African man who was put on display for fairgoers.) Ota Benga's musical instrument, the molimo, also plays an important role. The bond between Ota Benga and Harry--one that Harry could never have dreamed of making--turns out to be surprising in many ways; it is a friendship that comes to affirm the ability of people to change, and to change one another.

Swiftly, Harry made his way through empty streets, passing only the milkman with his horse-drawn wagon full of milk and cream and butter and blocks of melting ice.

As planned, the Pygmy was waiting in the grove. He was lounging on the fallen log and watching the busy squirrels. Harry put the bundle of clothing down on the damp ground and unrolled it: shirt, pants, socks, cap, suspenders, and shoes.

Ota Benga got up with a smile. He whipped off his loincloth and stuffed it into the hollow end of the log. Then, interested and clearly amused, he stood still and let Harry dress him.

Ota Benga and Harry quickly walked from the Anthropology Exhibit to the entrance of the Pike, where they waited in line with all the others for the fair to open, and then melted into the crowds of fairgoers strolling along the broad streets of the mile-long gallery of entertainments.

The pitchmen were enthusiastically delivering their spiels.

"How about a ride of the Ferris wheel? Weighs four hundred tons, carries you two hundred sixty feet in the air, makes four revolutions every single hour, has thirty-six streetcar-sized cars, room for sixty people each. See the entire fair from two hundred sixty feet above the ground! See the towers, see the domes, see the steeples! See the seventy-five-foot-high fountains! See the ten thousand flags! See the six million square feet of fairgrounds! Step right up!"

Ota Benga didn't step right up. He stood stock still. Harry pulled his arm, but the Pygmy refused to move. His eyes were wide. His body tense and ready. He watched. He listened.

Just then, a troupe of Japanese acrobats dressed in gold-and-scarlet silks came tumbling by. Down the long street they went, performing somersaults and handsprings and walkovers, twisting and turning in midair, nimbly assembling themselves into colorful pyramids and, just as nimbly, jumping down and continuing their separate stunts.

Ota Benga laughed out loud, and, as if he'd forgotten every single thing Harry had told him, as if he had no idea why he shouldn't call attention to himself, he joined the parade, doing his own cartwheels and somersaults and walkovers in a humorous imitation of the gymnasts.

Inspired by the Pygmy, boys appeared from every direction to follow the troupe, skipping and running, performing an occasional cartwheel or handspring, coming between Harry and Ota Benga.

Then, before Harry could go after the Pygmy, he was cut off again! For on the heels of the high-spirited boys came a Scottish band: bagpipers and drummers dressed in traditional kilts. "Men in skirts!" exclaimed people in the crowd.

As if that were not trouble enough, right behind the Scotsmen came another band: a quick-stepping, lively uniformed American marching band playing the "Washington Post March," with instruments, brass buttons, and gold braid shining brightly in the morning sun.

The lively two-step of the march infected everyone and raised even higher the spirits of the happy pleasure seekers.

Only one face in the clapping, toe-tapping crowd wore a worried expression. It was Harry's. Where the devil had Ota Benga gone?

Finally, when the acrobats, the boys, the bagpipers, and the marching band all turned the corner at the end of the Pike, Ota Benga appeared at Harry's side. And, though the Pygmy was grinning from ear to ear, his sharp teeth shining out as bright as day, nobody paid any attention. Far too many other fascinating things were going on.

Ota Benga and Harry moved along the Pike, just two among the hundreds out for a day of pure pleasure at the fair.

But not a single one of the exhibits on the Pike, except the birds and the monkeys, interested Ota Benga.

Ota Benga, always before so curious about every single thing around him, had no use at all for any of the marvels of the Pike.

The day grew hot, then hotter. Harry and Ota Benga trudged unhappily along.

"We ought to start back pretty soon," Harry glumly told the Pygmy.

Ota Benga didn't answer, for just at that moment they heard sweet voices softly singing, somewhere nearby. The Pygmy stopped to listen, and he held up his hand for Harry to be still.

"Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home," the voices sang. "Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home!"

Ota Benga moved carefully, quietly on. Harry followed.

The singers, all Negroes, were shabbily dressed in old-fashioned clothes. They sat on broken-down chairs and stools on the front porch of a ramshackle cabin. One man leaned against the cabin wall next to an old-time spinning wheel. Another plucked the strings of a banjo. Small children, all but naked, played in front of the cabin in the dust.

When the Negroes saw Ota Benga and Harry, they straightened up and, still humming, smiled a welcome. A grizzled, toothless old man struggled to his feet, and leaning heavily on the stout stick that served him for a cane, he called out, "How-de-do?" and beckoned for them to come nearer.

Ota Benga strode forward. Harry followed cautiously, wondering where in the world they were.

As if reading the boy's thoughts, the old man, still leaning on his stick, executed a clownish shuffle, first with one foot and then with the other. Next, he pulled off his hat and crushed it against his chest. He eyed Harry and Ota Benga coyly.

"This be the quarters, massa," he explained, bowing his gray head toward Harry, "and we be--de slaves!"

The word "slaves" froze Ota Benga in his tracks, and an expression of such deep sorrow appeared upon his face that the man, seeing it, could not continue his fawning and foolishness.

Slowly, he straightened his old spine and replaced his hat. "We just play-acting son," he explained. "Part of the fair, don't you know? Called the Old Plantation."

Ota Benga seemed stricken and stood as still as if he had suddenly taken root.

"Slave!" whispered Ota Benga.

"Pretend slaves," said the banjo player, plucking his instrument softly. "We're play-acting slaves, boy. And getting paid cash-money to do it. This here's a World's Fair exhibit."

One of the women spoke up. "You got the white folks up there in the big house, pretending," she explained. "And you got us black folks down here in the quarters, pretending. Exhibit closes, we catch the streetcar and go home, right back to Morgan Street."

"Ain't no real slaves now, honey," another of the women put in. "This here's the year nineteen-ought-four. Slavery, that's long gone."

Ota Benga shook his head and looked straight into all the doubtful and astonished eyes. "Slave," he told them firmly, hitting his chest with his fist. "Slave."

Noe Valley resident Jane Cutler is the author of numerous books for children, including My Wartime Summers, Family Dinner, No Dogs Allowed, Darcy and Gran Don't Like Babies, and The Cello of Mr. O. She has received several awards, and in 1998 The Song of the Molimo was named Best Children's Book of the Year by the Bank Street College of Education. "I hope readers take from the book the same lesson the fictional Harry Jones took home from the fair," says Cutler. "I hope their eyes are opened in a way that helps them look past racial stereotypes. And I hope they experience a song of molimo of their own--an optimistic and beautiful rendering of what it means to be human, both in the world and in the heart."

This excerpt from The Song of the Molimo, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, is reprinted by permission of the author; copyright 1998 by Jane Cutler.