Otas Travels: Rumors of Race and Speciation in the Atlantic World

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 9:30 AM
Room 601 (Colorado Convention Center)
Lauren (Robin) Derby, University of California, Los Angeles

Karl Marx has theorized how alienated labor creates a loss of self, as a man stripped of the product of his labor becomes an animal. This paper takes up this process through a close examination of the circulation of shapeshifting rumors about the Baka pygmies of Central Africa from 1840 to 1920. The Baka became central players in the nineteenth century ivory trade, said to be the only hunters capable of bringing down the elephant, and rumored to actually turn into them. I consider these narratives about man into beast in relation to stories told by German botanists such as Victor Schoelcher that the Baka were actually primates, views which eventually landed a Baka man, Otto Benga, in the monkey cage at the Bronx zoo (much to the consternation of African American ministers). I argue that the circulation of Baka stories of man as beast and man into beast explains the use of the term baka in Haiti and the Dominican Republic to connote shapeshifting today.

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