Africans: Coming to a Zoo Near You!

Why does a prominent American zoo have an exhibition of Africans? Because European peoples and their descendants do not belong in such a place.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure people don’t belong in zoos. People, after all, aren’t animals. Of course, when it comes to Africa and Africans, we all know such thinking does not apply. And here I thought the scientific community had settled this once and for all. Now, the Houston Zoo is continuing in this grand tradition with its forthcoming “African Forest” exhibit, construction on which started this month (Ht Racialicious). Coming December 2010: Travel to Africa—No Passport Needed!

Well then, let’s travel, shall we? An “extraordinary adventure” awaits!

By extraordinary adventure, they mean “the thrill of seeing Africa” (remember your first time?), as you are taken “on an entertaining journey through one of the world’s most mysterious and beautiful places.” Oh my! As an added bonus, the “African Forest will also serve as a dynamic living classroom emphasizing the importance of conserving our natural world.” The ultimate irony here is that Shell—that would be the oil company—is one of their donors.

But there is no irony at the African Forest. There are chimpanzees, rhinos and giraffes, among which you will be able to dine “al fresco” at the “African-Themed Restaurant.” Just like they do in Africa! Except with air-conditioning! In this forest, though, it’s not just about the “awe-inspiring animals, magnificent wildlife and beautiful habitats”—it’s also about the people, or rather the “pygmys.” There will be “Pygmy Huts” (life-size replicas!), which “will provide an educational opportunity to learn about the Pygmy people.” There will also be a “Pygmy Village and Campground,” which will include “African art, history and folklore” (complete with musical instruments and artifacts!).

I did mention that this was a zoo, right?

A state-of-the-art one, in fact. The chimps and cheetahs get their own bedrooms, and the giraffes get new “luxurious” ones. The “Pygmy Village,” though, only has huts and “a rustic outdoor shower.” It seems the Village only just “recently got running water.” They’re “pygmys,” you see. And lest you think we’re talking about the entirety of Africa here, the zoo only means to recreate “an environment reminiscent of the forest landscape of western equatorial Africa.” So that would be the western part of Africa, the country. Looking for complexity? Or, you know, accuracy? You won’t find it here. But you may find a nicely packaged soundtrack of the “boom of African drums [that] echo across a wooded landscape.” Can’t wait!

Those of you with some disposable income will be glad to know that you can “take ownership” of the African Forest. (Uh-oh, I sense a scramble coming on…) Got $1,000,000? You can name the “Pygmy Village and Campground!” Not so well-endowed? $15,000 will get your name on a bench. But hurry up, there’s only 7 left! To get the whole thing, King Leopold-style, all you need is $20,000,000.

Shocking? Perhaps. Surprising? No. As with all tropes about Africa and Africans, this has been done before, perhaps nowhere more prominently than at that bastion of credibility, the American Museum of Natural History—emphasis on natural and history. There you’ll find the Hall of African Mammals, alongside the Hall of African Peoples. This “culture hall” is one of a few dedicated to the various “peoples” of the world—non-European peoples to be precise. Because clearly, European peoples and their descendants do not belong in such a place.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.