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Sambo’s Restaurant: Rise and fall, with Ithaca and Santa Barbara

The sociologist David Pilgrim, in an essay on the “The Picaninny Caricature” for the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, tells the story of the Little Black Sambo:

Arguably, the most controversial picaninny image is the one created by Helen Bannerman. … She spent thirty years of her life in India. … In 1898 there “came into her head, evolved by the moving of a train,” the entertaining story of a little black boy, beautifully clothed, who outwits a succession of tigers, and not only saves his own life but gets a stack of tiger-striped pancakes. The story eventually became Little Black Sambo. The book appeared in England in 1899 and was an immediate success.

At the time, the book was not the most racist thing out there:

Stereotypical anti-black traits — for example, laziness, stupidity, and immorality — were absent from the book. Little Black Sambo, the character, was bright and resourceful unlike most portrayals of black children. Nevertheless, the book does have anti-black overtones … The illustrations were racially offensive, and so was the name Sambo. At the time that the book was originally published Sambo was an established anti-black epithet, a generic degrading reference. It symbolized the lazy, grinning, docile, childlike, good-for-little servant.

I learned from Pilgrim that Julius Lester co-authored an Afrocentric retelling of the story in 1996, Sam and the Tigers. Pilgrim quotes Lester:

When I read Little Black Sambo as a child, I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he. Even as I sit here and write the feelings of shame, embarrassment and hurt come back. And there was a bit of confusion because I liked the story and I especially liked all those pancakes, but the illustrations exaggerated the racial features society had made it clear to me represented my racial inferiority — the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red protruding lips. I did not feel good about myself as a black child looking at those pictures.

These are the covers of Lester’s book and a 1934 version.

Ithaca, 1979

I didn’t know any of this at age 12, in 1979, when Sambo’s Restaurant opened up in Ithaca, NY, my hometown. The chain of restaurants was started in 1957 by Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett (get it, Sam-Bo’s). Despite a growing clamor to change its racist name (the interiors of the restaurants were also decorated with images from the story), Wikipedia says there were more than 1,100 outlets by that time. Here’s their 1980 TV commercial, featuring a White child with his divorce-era single dad, saving money because of inflation:

In Ithaca, anyway, there was a boycott movement. Maybe someone still has their orange “Boycott Sambo’s” bumper sticker; I can’t find mine. We canceled that shit, and the company declared bankruptcy in 1981.

Here’s a story from the Ithaca Journal, November 26, 1979:

IJ-sambos

A couple things are amazing about this, to me. First, the reporter Fred Gaskins (who is Black). Right around that time, must have been seventh grade, I spent some time (a day?) shadowing him under an apprenticeship-mentoring program called The Learning Web (still there!), because I wanted to be a writer. (News reporting was my first job after food service, in 1985.)*

Anyway, the other interesting thing in this article is Newstell Marable, the company’s Black regional community relations manager, who is running down the protesters and talking up the company’s hiring record. “The name is not demeaning to me as a black man,” he’s quoted as saying, noting that 12% of the local restaurant’s 50 employees were Black, while Ithaca was only 5% Black.

Marable died at age 84 in 2015, in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. When he died, the Pottstown branch of the NAACP, of which Marable had been president (not clear which years), picked up his Sambo’s story:

Employed as Sambo’s Restaurants, Inc. Regional Marketing Manager for the Eastern Coast, he was their EEOC Officer and Community Relations Manager from 1980 to 1982. Mr. Marable shared racial sensitivity with the management and persuaded them to change the name from Sambo’s, a name with racist overtones, to Seasonal Restaurants.**

Noting his commitment to “public service, fighting poverty, and equal rights through jobs, housing, education, and health,” the chapter biography remembers Marable, a graduate of Alabama A&M and an Army veteran, with these moving words:

He bestowed blessing through a life filled with many rolls of service to others both at home and in the larger community. For countless people of all ages and walks of life, Mr. Marable demonstrated true leadership by serving others with integrity and courage. He mentored from personal experiences; guided with knowledge and insight; advised with wisdom; emphasized with true understanding; chastised with living kindness; battled courageously for justice while seeking truth and showing integrity; and encouraged many with endless patience.

(With his Sambo’s history, would Marable be memorialized as a “civil rights leader” today?)

Santa Barbara, 2020

Anyway, the Sambo’s Restaurant chain went away one way or the other. Except for the “first and last-standing” Sambo’s Restaurant, in Santa Barbara, California, which finally, only after the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests this summer, changed its name. After a brief stint as [Peace] & Love, the owner (Sam Battistone’s grandson, Chad Stevens) changed the name to Chad’s, because “I knew it was time to change.”

The KEYT news report on the name change, bizarrely, says: “the name, however, had been interpreted as racist, as was the book about Little Black Sambo, an Indian boy, the restaurant had connected with.” And shows these totally not racist images on the wall:

chads

Whatever you want to tell yourself, Chad Stevens. The report quotes local activist Rashelle Monet as “involved in name change.” She wrote on her Instagram account: “I’ll never forget this moment. I could literally feel something inside me awaken.”

The history runs through us.


Next day addendum: On account of doing no lit review, I just found out sociologist Karyn Lacy wrote an essay about Sambo’s last week. I should have linked to it. Feel free to post other relevant things in the comments.


* Here’s a story on the restaurant renaming from 1982. I don’t know if Marable’s role in that decision is documented anywhere.

** Gaskins went on to a long career in journalism, and now works in communications for the city of Hampton, VA.

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What if Reason didn’t write the NYT coverage of Oberlin students?

 

1989 Michigan Daily poto by Robin Loznak.

Daily Beast columnist Robby Soave is also a staff editor at Reason, according to his Twitter profile. Here I’m comparing his column from Dec. 20, “Oberlin College Students: Cafeteria Food Is Racist,” with a Dec. 21 news article in the New York Times, written by Katie Rogers, “Oberlin Students Take Culture War to the Dining Hall.”

Soave’s opening:

University dining halls aren’t exactly famous for serving gourmet dishes, but Oberlin students say their meals aren’t merely bad—they are racially inauthentic, and thus, a form of microaggression.

Rogers’s opening:

Some students at Oberlin College are taking their demands for diversity and racial inclusion to the dining hall, asking for more traditional meals and criticizing what they consider poor efforts at multicultural cooking.

First, the facts from Soave, in order:

  • Oberlin student with Japanese name, quoted in Oberlin Review, complained the sushi was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin student with Vietnamese name, also quoted in OR, complained that banh mi sandwich was inauthentic.
  • Oberlin tuition is $50,000
  • Fredrik de Boer snarky tweet about General Tso chicken not being authentic in the first place.
  • Black students (according to document linked, “obtained by Legal Insurrection,” a right-wing activist site) are demanding “safe space” for Black students.
  • Black students also demand Black psychologists and non-Western healers at the counseling center.
  • Black students also demand pay for organizing time. Offending community members “banished” (Soave’s word), and four buildings renamed.

Here are the facts from Rogers’s story, also in order:

  • Black student union “earlier this month” protested lack of response to an earlier petition for more traditional food, “including more fried chicken,” as reported by Oberlin Review.
  • List of complaints from the other OR story, including banh mi, sushi, and General Tso chicken. Same quote from Japanese-name student, attributed to OR.
  • Quoted statement from Oberlin dining services director.
  • Fredrik Boer tweet.
  • Response from dining services conglomerate.
  • Black student demands (same link to right-wing source): “segregated safe spaces” (Rogers’ paraphrasing of Soave’s critique), plus demand for increase in Black student enrollment.

Rogers added the next day’s worth of news to the story. So that’s the news. But the whole existence of the story is based on the Soave piece. The Vietnamese student complaint is from a story dated Nov. 6; the Black student dining hall protest was reported Dec. 12. As for the mysteriously-linked Black student demands, they were posted a week earlier by Legal Insurrection, who admit they don’t know who wrote them or who they represent, and their source for the document is anonymous. Nice reporting, NYT.

Look

People have been telling student activists to get off their lawns since they invented lawns. The criticism just varies between national-security-threat tear-gas them off the lawn and liberal disdain kids-these-days get off my lawn, depending on the context and climate. The difference is whether they spank (gas, arrest, surveil) or merely mock them for abusing their privileges when they should  be thanking their betters. Neither Soave nor Rogers nor any of the many who shared and copied the story cared to get the actual story from the actual actors involved. This is not required (by editors or readers) when all you’re doing is reinforcing the already-known sorry.

You wouldn’t know from the Soave/Rogers story that the Black student demands also include benefits for part-time dining hall workers, as well as better pay and benefits.

Of course, if the students are concerned about racism they could spend their energies instead just protesting the giant national racist movement that is leading one of our two political parties, and therefore presumably simply be ignored by the NY Times. But the transition from annoying spoiled brats to national security threat is surprisingly easy to make — when the story is owned by the national news media. Rogers could have written her story about the students’ explicit anti-imperialist rhetoric and tied it to the San Bernardino “self-radicalizing” story instead. The stretch wouldn’t have been much further.

When I complained that the Times was highlighting the fried chicken demand instead of the labor demand, Judith Shulevitz tweeted, “They kinda set themselves up for that one. Gotta pick your battles.”

But it’s not that simple.

DEPLORABLE PLAGIARISM CHARGE UPDATE

When I first saw this story I immediately linked it to the Daily Beast story, which I had been arguing about the previous day. When I saw how similar they were, I tweeted this:

I said it would be plagiarism in a class paper, because the main idea and most of the facts came from someone who was not acknowledged for that contribution. I honestly don’t know what constitutes plagiarism in journalism, but in my line of work such writing is unacceptable. In response, Patrick LaForge, who describes himself as senior editor of the NYTimes Express Team,* objected with three tweets (in reverse order):

laforge

My argument really is not about plagiarism, it’s about the news coverage – the story itself, the sources, and the writing. It is true that the NYTimes story did link to the Soave piece, but not in a way that gave any credit for all it contributed. I don’t see that as dispositive. Soave also tweeted that he “didn’t have a problem with the story,” which is nice. I guess he cares more about his influence whipping up the national hysteria about kids on the lawn than about getting individual credit for his work, which is admirable.**

* No disparagement intended by “describes himself”; I just couldn’t find this information on the NYTimes website.

** Of course, criticizing the NYTimes is all fun and games until you enrage an editor, and then it’s like, “Dude, I didn’t mean anything by it … you’re still gonna quote me, right? We’re good?”

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