I am an educator. I teach Social Studies. I took multiple courses in United States History and World History throughout my university career. Not once did I learn about Human Zoos. The political term is “Colonial Exhibits”. Now, as an educator of history myself, I do not have this topic in my curriculum. Human Zoos used to be the norm in society. You may be wondering at this point “What is a Human Zoo?”
Human Zoos started in the late 1800s. During this time frame, the Industrial Revolution and Imperialism were chapters you read in your textbooks. Imperilaism was when the United States gave its go at colonialism. Large "superior" countries take control of small "inferior" countries to “Help/ Civilize/ Enlighten them. Just for clarification many of those colonized countries did not ask for help and being superior and inferior is subjective.
America was a newbie to the colonization game at this point while Europeans were old pros. America was spreading its Manifest Destiny dreams overseas to the Philippines as Europeans exploited Africa. Now, one of the reasons America and Europeans were colonizing these places was to spread their own cultures. Another reason for colonization was economic gains such as trading and resources. The last reason was to show off military strength. Welcome to one of my 8th grade Social Studies lessons!
As these global conquerors took over these countries, citizens would only read or hear about the people who lived in the newly acquired territories. The creation of Human Zoos wanted to bridge that gap. Europeans and Americans alike would pay to see these “Colonial Exhibits” and observe people from these unknown lands. The “Civilized” world can take a glimpse of the “Primitive” people and encouraged more colonization because those people need their "help".
St. Louis, 1904 the World’s Fair was in town. A “Colonial Exhibit” was the latest attraction. The Philippines was the newest addition to the United States territories. Missionary schools were already up and running there to assimilate the Filipino people to the American way. Americans, who used to be colonized by Great Britain mind you, paid to exploit Filipino people. Americans watched people in cages. The Filipinos in this zoo were not seen as people, they were seen as a circus. People just watched as Filipino people in barely any clothes make fires and talk to one another. They were taken from their homes for Americans to “learn” about the Philippines. The film industry was not at its height yet in media influence so, Human Zoos were used as a “study tool”. Huge human rights violation siren! It was used more as a further push for European white supremacy. These zoos first caught unfortunate popularity in Belgium and France. The African Congo was heavily abused by Belgium and France. In the French Human Zoos, many African people were exploited for European entertainment.
The many people in these Human Zoos were mocked and taunted. They were not taken care of and were treated like animals. My heart breaks every time I see a picture of this horrifying past. You’re probably wondering now is when did this end? 1900’s right? WRONG. The 2000s was the last noted Human Zoo. Again let me clarify, people were put into zoos so other people can watch them for entertainment. Where is this in my curriculum? This is not being taught! What a disservice, why are we hiding history? We are supposed to learn from history in order not to make it repeat itself. I teach my students that during the late 1800’s- early 1900’s America was booming with new inventions and rose a world power not paying to see people in cages at a zoo. That’s a problem, we must learn the good, the bad, and the ugly of our nation.
People were attractions in zoos based on their exotic cultures, appearances, and languages. They were verbally and physically abused, to say the least. Africans were also in American Human Zoos, even the Bronx Zoo in New York City. “Colonial Exhibits” was right next to animal exhibits. How can we as human beings partake in such an immoral practice and hide it from our history books?
The “science” behind these zoos was known as eugenics. This was the study of how human breeding can determine more desirable traits in the human race. This term was heavily used during the Nazi Regime. A biased theory came out different races have different intelligence or desirable traits. The biased theory explained that European or “white” heritage was the superior combination of human characteristics. These findings encouraged the mistreatment of people of color even in today’s society.
Awareness creates advocacy which leads to change. This topic should be in the Social Studies curriculum. Our future generation should understand the awful mistakes of our past to create a better future. Give a voice, to the voiceless of the past and not let their experience be hidden in the shadows.
"Originally Published on Medium.com in "Age of Awareness"