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.
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:
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:
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.