This all became clear to me many years ago after I watched a public TV special on this subject. After Emancipation, the laws of the land forbade the keeping as property of “colored” people. The African-descended man was now free--at least of the chains and whips of slavery. But the links of cultural bondage persist much longer with much greater strength. If blacks under the law were not to be oppressed one way, they could still be oppressed in others. In popular media--books and newspapers at first, and later films--there was a shameful fashion for presenting blacks as buffoons--ugly-looking, sexless, shuffling, inarticulate, stupid fodder for comic relief who degraded one race for the aggrandizement of another. Think about Stepin Fetchit (look him up if you don’t know the character) and all the Hollywood movie “Mammies,” and of course the minstrel shows of the Vaudeville era. That’s where that came from, the swapping out of physical chains and whips for cultural dehumanization. And besides old Stepin, there is one other character synonymous with this artistic beating down of an entire race; a character whose name in some quarters cannot be spoken aloud to this day.
Depending on what generation you belong to, you may be as unfamiliar with Sambo as you are with Stepin. But you’re on the Internet right now, and when you leave this Blog, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I want you to Google it. I’ll tell you this much up front: There used to be a Denny’s-like restaurant chain called Sambo’s. All the Sambo’s had to be closed or renamed because of the wrath and acrimony that this name instills in African-Americans. I’m not kidding. And I’m now going to tell you why.
Little Black Sambo is the story of a little Indian (as in Hindu) boy whose parents give him fine new clothes for his birthday. When Sambo is out in the forest with his new duds on, he is mugged by some tigers who make him give them his threads. (Think of all the kids in school who ever got mugged for their high-end sneakers; it’s a bit like that.) To escape the tigers, naked little Sambo climbs a tree, but he needn’t have bothered: for the tigers in his clothing are all so vain that they start fighting amongst themselves over which is the best-looking, and as Sambo watches from above, the tigers chase each other round the tree till they turn to butter! No, really--butter, which Sambo’s mother serves on pancakes for breakfast! Seriously!
Now, the way it was originally published, Little Black Sambo is a perfectly charming children’s story. Parents might still be reading it to their children today--if not for what happened when American publishers got hold of it. When it reached this country, the illustrations in Little Black Sambo were redone, and Sambo became the very ugly, stupid, buffoonish caricature of a black child that was so rife in the portrayal of blacks throughout American popular entertainment of that time. It was never meant to be that way; remember, this story took place in India and was about Indian people! But that’s what American publishers made it. And somehow, Little Black Sambo and in fact the very name “Sambo” became the lightning rod for the anger of African-Americans over the way they were treated, culturally, socially, politically, economically--you name it. The name Sambo became as demonized as the justly hated “N” word. It became a name not to be spoken. (In the first season of Soap, there’s a scene in which Bob the dummy [Jay Johnson] calls Benson [Robert Guillaume] by the hated name! It’s one of the few places in modern popular culture where the name is heard.) And because of what American culture did to what was originally just a charming story for children, Little Black Sambo was driven underground: suppressed, censored, buried.
When my friend Christopher Bing-Manhard and I were in art school, Christopher caught the ambition to do children’s books. One of the books he wanted to do was a new version of Little Black Sambo. Having never been exposed to the loathing that surrounded this story, I never held this ambition against him; I actually helped him a bit with one of the early drafts of it and supported his efforts. In researching the work, we learned the actual history of the book and where it really came from, and realized the appalling thing that had been done to it. Christopher persevered against the vitriol that the story still aroused even so many generations later, and eventually his version of Little Black Sambo did see print. But it remains a somewhat obscure piece of work, which is a shame, because Christopher’s illustrations are a wonder to behold. Even beauteous art can’t erase the legacy that has been heaped on this basically sweet little story.
I’ll give you another little post-script about this. Do you remember the sitcom Bosom Buddies starring Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari? There’s an episode in the second season in which the girls on the show--Donna Dixon, Telma Hopkins, and the late Wendie Jo Sperber--are alone at the advertising agency where they have to shoot a commercial with a tiger. It happens that Ms. Hopkins is a black singer/actress; she was half of Tony Orlando’s Dawn. Anyway, at one point the tiger gets loose in the studio and the girls run up a ladder to get away from him. When the other two start to panic, Hopkins’s character asks, “So what do you want me to do, run him round in circles till he turns to butter?” Having just learned about Little Black Sambo at the time, I thought that allusion was really funny. But some time later, when that episode went into syndication, guess what: that line of dialogue had been cut! I listened for it, didn’t hear it, and realized, Hey, they cut the Little Black Sambo joke! I just shook my head. There are some things that time just doesn’t seem to erase.
Anyway, to get back the original subject: When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, many people lobbed allegations of racism against George Lucas and his company for the character of Jar Jar Binks and his buffoonery with a Caribbean accent, and the Caribbean patois and exaggerated mannerisms of the Gungan species (in particular their leader, Boss Nass). Last time we talked about the probable--and in my opinion, overwhelmingly likely--reasons why this had done. And I advanced the opinion that it wasn’t done deliberately but unthinkingly, in the process of trying to animate these characters. They did this without realizing or anticipating the way some people might react. They didn’t think ahead to the cultural effects of their special effects. And they weren’t prepared for the backlash they faced from some segments of the public. Well, what I’d like to offer as a further opinion is that what racist book publishers did deliberately and intentionally with Little Black Sambo, Lucasfilms did unwittingly with Jar Jar Binks. Jar Jar Binks is not the Stepin Fetchit of science fiction so much as he is the accidental, unintentional Little Black Sambo of science fiction.
The lesson I would suggest we take from all of the above is just this. Every story, if it is a really good one, has things to tell us about life. There are, however, times when we ought to let a story be just a story. And yet, even so, there are times when we ought to remember that the audience for every story is going to bring its own perceptions to what they’re seeing/hearing/reading. No story exists independently of the context of the culture around it. And context can make all the difference, not just in the world, but in the galaxy. Even a galaxy far, far away.
Next week: African-American History Month continues with a look back at a daytime TV series that should have gone on for...Generations.