The real Tarzan: A revolutionary history lesson by Vernon T. Bateman

“The Belly of the Beast,” one of Vernon T. Bateman’s paintings, is a profound lesson on the revolutionary history of the real Tarzan: Ota Benga. This five-minute video lesson reminds why we must study, honor, and advance the legacy of revolutionary freedom fighters like Ota Benga, who refused to accept colonial subjugation, racist terror, and enslavement, and resisted by uniting with other inhabitants of the “Monkey House” at the Bronx Zoo.

While the parallels between Ota Benga and Vernon T. Bateman’s struggles, which are separated by over a century, are as striking as they are disturbing, thinking about them holds the key for how we can move closer to a liberated world.

Ota Benga was liberated through collective organizing then, and we need your help to liberate Bateman now. Visit, sign and share the petition, and join the fight for freedom today!

Directed and produced by Aubrey Whiteman
Written and performed by Vernon T. Bateman and Derek Ford


Vernon T. Bateman: The name of the painting is called “The Belly of the Beast.” This is the original Tarzan, Ota Benga.

Derek Ford: Vernon T Bateman is self-taught arti-vist, an artist and activist based in Indiana. Vernon’s primary media is acrylic, and his paintings have been exhibited at the Bottleworks District, Dream Palace Books & Coffee, and other places. While his works are in several private collections, most of his pieces are philanthropic. They’re gifts to the community that are also gifts to Vernon who told me he is, “just grateful for the opportunity to help others.” He has so much to teach the world like he taught me the story of Ota Benga.

Vernon: This strip right here, that’s running through the painting, this represent the tribe that he was from. The flag on the background of the painting represent Congo.

Derek: Ota Benga was born around 1883 in the country we know of today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ota Benga was born during the “Scramble for Africa” when European and US powers devastated the continent and centuries of self-rule. At the time it was called the Congo Free State. That’s what King Leopold II, the monarch of Belgium, named it when his armies invaded the territory and engaged in numerous atrocities to enslave its people and exploit its natural resources. Ota Benga’s entire family was murdered by the Belgian colonists.

Although Ota Benga managed to escape, he was later enslaved. In 1904, a US slave trader named Samuel Verner bought Ota Benga for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth. He transported Ota Benga to the United States where he put him on display in various fairs. Ota Benga was placed inside a cage with gorillas.

The slaver brought Benga to the Bronx Zoo in New York City where he was put in a cage in an exhibit called “The Monkey House.”

Vernon: This right here is me— raised inside the belly of the Beast inside the cage.

Derek: Vernon Bateman was captured by the state of Indiana in 1998. At the age of 18 years old, he was forced to live inside of cages we call prisons. He was deprived of any company for years at a time. He has been out of prison for just over a year, but he still isn’t exonerated even though there’s no evidence tying him to the alleged crime, the only eyewitness admitted he was lying later, and the alleged victim and her family have both called for Bateman’s freedom.

Throughout his 26 years of unjust incarceration—half of it spent in solitary confinement—Vernon managed to do tremendous work. During this time, he illustrated and wrote five children’s books to educate our youth on topics like LGBTQ rights, bullying, gun violence, and more.

Derek: Just imagine: just turning 18, learning how to read and write, just learning that the brain needs certain emotions to develop.

Vernon: Then imagine living inside of a cage with gorillas. Then imagine living inside a prison cell with guys with hundreds of years, and mental health issues.

Derek: Although they tried as hard as they could, and they still are trying, they couldn’t and they can’t break Vernon. Neither could they break Ota Benga. Ota Benga and his nonhuman animals united. They survived together. Although the racist crowds laughed at them, as Vernon taught me, it was really Ota Benga and his companions who were playing the real joke: they showed that nothing can break the human spirit, and that through unity, we can overcome any obstacle of any system.

Vernon: This right here is a picture of Ota Benga holding the chimpanzee as if it was his baby because the gorillas embraced him as if they was, as if he was they baby.

Derek: Ota Benga was freed, but it took a long struggle led by Black clergy. They liberated him, and they brought him to be housed and educated. Ota Benga died a hero; a survivor and a fighter of both Belgian colonialism and US imperialism, but he didn’t do it alone. I didn’t know about the original Ota Benga until Vernon showed me this painting and talked me through it, just like there’s a lot of people out there who don’t know the story about Vernon Baitman. But the way that we get Bateman from here to here is by sharing that story, both the story of the original Tarzan, Ota Benga, and of Vernon T. Bateman. That’s how we get Vernon free.

Featured photo: A close-up of one section of “The belly of the beast.” Credit: Vernon T. Bateman.