When I was a kid for a treat my mother would take our family to Sambo’s, a diner not unlike Lyon’s or Denny’s. I remember the art on the walls, menus, and placemats told the Sambo story, not quite so I understood it, but colorfully enough that I was fascinated by particular scenes – the boy in the turban, the tigers. At some point I heard the Sambo story was considered racist. Why? The boy seemed clever and resourceful and won out over scary tigers. Was it mainly the illustrations in the original storybook, The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, that created the problem? Bannerman was British and may have intended the story to be about dark-skinned South Asians; tigers live in Indian, not Africa, after all. David Pilgrim in an essay about “The Picaninny Caricature” says Bannerman’s Sambo “is very dark, has a broad nose, and the stereotypical exaggerated red lips and rolling eyes found in black caricatures,” which he sees as a clearly African rather than South Asian lampoon. Besides the illustrations, the names Bannerman chose for her characters suggest racist stereotypes. “At the time that the book was originally published Sambo was an established anti-black epithet, a generic degrading reference.” And there’s nothing flattering about Sambo’s parents’ names – Mumbo and Jumbo.
Pilgrim doesn’t think Helen Bannerman meant to be malicious. But her work was much pirated and imitated – and itself subject to lampoon and caricature – and non-Bannerman versions took the Sambo story into clearly ugly territory, reinforcing hateful attitudes about African Americans. Says David Pilgrim, “By the 1960s the book was seen as a remnant of a racist past.”
The Sambo’s restaurant chain is no more. At its height in the 70s, according to Wikipedia, there were 1200 Sambo’s restaurants. Controversy over the name as well as some sort of “corporate level decisions … led to Sambo's … demise.” The first Sambo’s still exists in Santa Barbara, California.
Sambo popped his head up one night recently. I was reading a little of this and a little of that, as I do. In his book on the Moon’s origins, The Big Splat, Dana Mackenzie says back in the early days of the solar system the Moon and the Earth orbited quite close to each other, they spun a lot quicker, and they hadn’t yet cooled into hard globes. They were, in other words, “whirling around each other like the tigers in an Indian folktale who chased each other around a tree until they melted into butter.” Oh, I said to myself, Mackenzie’s talking about the Sambo story.
In Ellen Conroy Kennedy’s The Negritude Poets the Sambo story comes up in a very different context. Kennedy says two women were getting to know each other “at the Dakar Festival, in April 1966.” Both women were American. One woman had a son, “a beautiful child of about five or six, [who] had been playing tiger, and growling, ‘Watch out! Watch out! I’m going to eat you up!’ [The white woman said] in surprise, ‘Hey, that’s what the tiger said to Sambo! And he said, “Oh, please, Mister Tiger, don’t eat me up, and I’ll give you my fine green umbrella! …”’ [ellipsis in original] Suddenly the boy’s mother, who was black, turned on the other woman and gave her a furious tongue-lashing. Hearing the word ‘Sambo,’ she thought the stranger had meant to insult her child.” The white woman, shocked at this reaction, reports the incident to her friend, the poet Edouart J. Maunick. “[S]he burst into uncontrollable sobs trying to explain what had happened. Maunick was much moved.”
Edouard Maunick wrote a poem in response, “Letter to Ellen Conroy Kennedy.” Yes, the white woman was the editor/translator herself. Maunick offers solace and a philosophical shake of the head at the legacy of painful words. “The byword is despair / sign and symbol of / a terrible divide / the war of words / the war of roots and branches / lies heavy in a stranger’s mouth / despite her uncontrary mind …”