Thoughts on Modern Human Zoos

Yesterday I came across an article in the Guardian,
Human safaris may be banned, but still tourists flock to Andaman Islandse My initial reaction was “I can’t believe they are still doing this”, because, as the article states, this is a re-visit, but also because “they” have been “doing this” for a while. I found my reaction to be interesting, because, well, we’ve been doing this, and are still doing it, to.

We, in the USA, have a unique relationship to the places that were so often a part of looking at the other with a consumptive gaze (I hesitate to add spectatorial because I feel like it is too neutral for the spectacularization of peoples that I am thinking of). There is an entire segment of this country’s population that, due to their epidermal schema are not allowed to trace themselves back to any place but a continent, not even a country, and as such identify with anything coming from that direction, even as history tells us this group of people is a blend of multiple ethnicities from multiple continents. Additionally, 20th and 21st century movements have called for connections across the Black/African Diaspora as though our histories are universal (something I think they both are and are not), or, to make it sound more theoretical, our histories are not not universal.

That being said, when old school, circa 1860s, colonization gets talked about in the US, I feel like we act as though this country’s role was as spectators of the spectacle. We keep a cool distance, perhaps because it would bring up our own elephant in the room that we never exactly confront head on. That elephant is of course slavery and the reasons why our African-Americans are African-Americans and not Specific-Place-In-Africa-Americans.
As a quick aside, I just realized I’ve never once contemplated the links that can be made between slaves being put on display at auctions and people being put on display in colonial villages. I find that very odd. We are not disconnected from the larger history of people being put display in the context of colonization, from the Expositions and World’s Fairs hosted in this country to Ota Benga being put on display in the Bronx zoo, we are implicated in this history.

A big part of my project is reclaiming some of the traces of that history through recontextualization. And yes, it is as problematic and complicated as it sounds. I like to think that these complexities what makes it a project worth doing. The project started when I found the archive of photographs W.E.B. Dubois sent to the 1900 Paris Exposition. Like everything related to this topic, I find his participation in the Exposition problematic, but I understand. I think it was step 1 in trying to flip the narrative from written about us to written by us, and for us. I imagine some of my discomfort comes from the idea of visualizing the talented 10th and not the whole. But that is another post. Maybe.

The reason I find modern human zoos so disconcerting is because we know, unequivocally now I hope, that all groups are capable of speaking for themselves and creating their own (hi)stories. As an example, look at what is being done with L.A. Gang Tours, a program, that, like Dubois, I find problematic as it re-inscribes dominant narratives of “the hood”, but its heart is in the right place (more or less my feelings on Dubois and Paris 1900). Still, programs like this seem to be the exception, and, despite our visible age, there is very limited digital visibility, and I can’t help but question why these things remain so hidden, even as I know what the reason probably is.

The power structure we continue to live in means that certain groups that have less access to power (in all ways power can be defined) are still placed within contexts, both spatial and temporal, real and imagined, that mirror the past of expositions and zoos that put humans on display. From the Polynesian Cultural Center and their calls to “Go Native” by participating tree climbing, spear throwing, and fire making, rather than positioning it as learning about indigenous traditions, to the imagined Z-world of Detroit, that I imagined hoped to employ local, mostly black populations in the role of zombies, a concept that was born from the history of various African countries and made its way to the US via slavery and Haiti, at risk communities are still seen as something that can be contained, commodified, and experienced from a distance even in our own USA backyard, even as we try to write ourselves out of the History of colonization.

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