The derisive term Sambo refers to African American males in a manner that is commonly viewed as racist and unacceptable. The long career of the Sambo stereotype is an important window into the history of black-white U.S. race relations. The term itself is a form of denigration and represents a stereotype that has been used variously to justify the inhumane treatment of slaves, provide a rationale for Jim Crow segregation, and, most often, to pander to the basest racist impulses in the United States to entertain white popular audiences. The Sambo stereotype has had several iterations in U.S. popular culture, ranging from children’s literature to minstrel shows of the slavery and post–Civil War eras, radio, motion pictures, television, and dining establishments. In addition, the Sambo stereotype also has a controversial career in the work of academics who studied slavery, particularly Stanley Elkins’s 1959 publication Slavery. This characterization of black men as passive buffoons was creatively challenged in Spike Lee’s 2000 movie Bamboozled.
One of the first representations of Sambo appeared in an 1808 short story by Edmund Botsford titled “Sambo and Toney: A Dialogue in Three Parts.” Much of the Sambo stereotype—subservient, ignorant, and linguistically chal-lenged—was presented in its full form in this early iteration. The story was intended to convey a supposedly accurate conversation between two slaves:
Sambo: Yes, thank God brother Toney, my mafter good, and I like up the country and cotton planting very well—you got a good mafter, Toney?
Toney: So fo, he do, he give us victual enough and good clothes but he make us work devilifh hard.…
Sambo: Well then, why you complain and fay devilifh hard, you know what devilifh mean, Toney? devilifh is fomething wicked, I fear you ufe fuch words, you wicked too, Toney.
Toney: What you call wicked, Sambo?
This dialogue is set in the slave South—though according to Botsford, “Fambo” might be a more appropriate spelling—but the last line is not far from a 1980s equivalent uttered in the television program Diff’rent Strokes : “Whatchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” A continuous thread of racism pervades U.S. popular culture, and to this day African American actors are often relegated to playing the fool.
The Sambo stereotype found its largest audience with the rise of minstrel shows in the 1830s. It was the minstrel show that popularized these caricatures of black slaves with white, working-class audiences. Sambo the stage performer was popularized when a white entertainer named Thomas “Daddy” Rice created the character known as Jim Crow. The accompanying song, entitled “Jump Jim Crow,” was penned by Rice and utilized the same exaggerated mispronunciations:
Weel about and turn about and do jis so, Eb’ry time I weel about and jump Jim Crow.
Rice claimed he modeled the character after an old black man he observed in Washington, D.C., and he created this notion of “jumping Jim Crow” as a way to entertain predominately white working-class audiences.
Popular entertainers would perform as black caricatures, with makeup that included the application of burnt cork to the face. They would “act black” by reproducing every stereotype known to the white audiences of the time. “Zip Coon,” “Tambo,” “Sambo,” “Jim Crow,” and “Jim Dandy” all corresponded with white stereotypes of black men. In addition, black women were often subjected to the same level of ridicule in the caricatures of “Mammy,” “Jezebel,” and “Sapphire.” Before the Civil War, these stereotypes were often used to justify slavery, for they were meant to show the supposedly inferior essential characteristics of slave men and women. This Sambo stereotype was clearly at work in Bishop Whipple’s Southern Diary, 1834–1844. The author, an Episcopal clergyman named Henry Benjamin Whipple, wrote of the slaves he encountered on a trip through the South: “They seem a happy race of beings and if you did not know it you would never imagine they were slaves. The loud laugh, the clear dancing eye, the cheerful face show that in this sad world of sin and sorrow they know but very few.”
In the separate but unequal period of black-white relations (1865–1964), segregated institutions often found their legitimation in the stereotypical representations of blacks “knowing their place.” The minstrel characters included the uppity Zip Coon, who becomes the buffoon because he wrongly thinks he’s successful, and the happy, ignorant, subservient Jim Crow and Tambo, who sing and dance their troubles away. At the tail end of the Jim Crow era, Edward R. Murrow aired his famous “Harvest of Shame” broadcast on Thanksgiving evening 1960. Murrow detailed the horrific working and living conditions of white and black migrant farmworkers. A Florida grower in the exposé had this to say about African American workers on his farm: “They love to go from place to place. They don’t have a worry in the world. They’re happier than we are. Today they eat, tomorrow, they don’t worry about [sic ]. They are the happiest race of people on earth.”
What cannot be overstated is that minstrel shows embodied the first form of popular culture in the United States. There is a direct line from minstrels to vaudeville, Broadway shows, motion pictures, radio, and television. Ziegfeld Follies, Christy’s Minstrels, the lyrics and performances of Stephen Foster, and Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer mark the most popular performances of antiblack racism in the Jim Crow era. Rather than being an aberration, performing in blackface and invoking racist stereotypes was a mainstay of Hollywood motion pictures. White actors who performed in blackface included Shirley Temple, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and even Mickey Mouse.
Radio and Television One of the most popular radio programs of the pre-television era was Amos and Andy, which was performed by two white actors. The show simply took the 1808 Sambo and Toney dialogue and updated it to the times. Many of the first television programs were based on the most popular radio programs of the day. Given the longstanding radio success of Amos and Andy, it was no surprise that a television program would be in the works. But two white men performing in blackface did not seem as apropos for the new medium, particularly given the vocal opposition of the NAACP to stereotypical blackface representations. Therefore, the CBS network hired the first all-African American acting crew to re-create the program. But the content of the television show did not veer from the original radio program and the black actors were expected to perform the stereotypes of Sambo, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Zip Coon.
Another early popular television program, Stepin Fetchit, took the Sambo stereotype to a similar level. The black actors Bert Williams and Lincoln Perry were both of Afro-Caribbean parentage and did not grow up in the United States. Thus, they were not similarly situated in their upbringing to see how the African American stereotypes of the stupid and docile buffoons they were playing reinforced inferior social conditions for black Americans.
Buffoonery was the main representation of blacks on television. With the advent of children’s cartoons, the common tropes deployed in blackface comedies were in evidence. While Our Gang and the Little Rascals were best known for redeploying the racist caricature of black children as pickaninnies in the characters of Stymie and Buckwheat, the inevitable cartoon explosions, with the resultant blackface or pickaninny image, was frequently used in Warner Brothers, Disney, MGM, Hanna-Barbera, and most other children’s cartoons.
Children’s Books Children were long subjected to the Sambo stereotype in early picture books and later comic books. The Story of Little Black Sambo is the most famous of these products. Written by Helen Bannerman in 1899, the story is a combination of the Sambo and uppity Zip Coon stereotypes though it is set in India, with tigers and allusions to Hindu culture. The story tells of a happy-go-lucky black child who loses his fancy clothes to tigers. It is built on a well-entrenched and blatantly racist structure of storytelling. Over time, the illustrations in various editions of the book increasingly took on the blackface motif for the story’s protagonist and his parents (Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo). Updated versions placed the story on a plantation in the U.S. South.
Sambo’s Restaurant The Story of Little Black Sambo found yet another life when a restaurant chain began to use the images of the book, and the story itself, to encourage children to eat there. The restaurant, named Sambo’s, was officially not named to invoke particular stereotypes. The owners, Sam Battistone and Newell “Bo” Bohnett, expressly identified their own names as the basis for the restaurant name, but they quickly incorporated the Little Black Sambo motif into the menu, placemats, advertisements, and promotions.
The Sambo’s chain was purchased by the Denny’s chain of restaurants in 1984, and for a time the two restaurants coincided with the same signage but distinct names. After social protest and continued pressure from African American organizations, the Sambo’s chain ceased to exist. But the more insidious nature of racism would rear its ugly head in the Denny’s corporation when, in the 1990s, it faced class action lawsuits by African American customers, who successfully argued that Denny’s was guilty of discriminatory practices and routinely not serving blacks.
Denny’s and Sambo’s were ubiquitously identified by the black community as particularly hostile to black customers, and a series of well-publicized events, occurring across the country, cemented a sense that an informal policy was in place to require its black patrons, and only its black patrons, to prepay for meals. As a result of the branding of Denny’s as a racist company, the corporation underwent a major makeover that involved legally required actions and a massive public relations campaign designed to increase the number of minority-owned franchises. Mandatory racial sensitivity training was undertaken, and an explicit nondiscrimination policy, based on a U.S. Department of Justice–enforced consent decree, was established. The claim that stereotypical images are harmless was severely undercut when it became clear that a chain restaurant long steeped in those stereotypes also perpetrated the most grievous practices of discriminatory treatment against the victims of the stereotypes.
The Sambo stereotype was a staple of popular culture, but academic research was not immune from stereotypical reasoning. Stanley Elkins’s 1959 analysis of slavery as a total institution can be credited for sparking the new social history of slavery research. Historians such as Eric Foner, Herbert Gutman, and Eugene Genovese wrote some of the most widely acknowledged analyses of slavery in part to discredit the claims of Elkins. The dubious hypothesis that Elkins sought to verify was that the peculiar system of U.S. chattel slavery caused the Sambo social psychology of slaves: “Sambo, the typical plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his behavior was full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration” (Elkins 1959, p. 87).
Elkins never empirically verifies that Sambos existed, but he assumes their presence. The following generation of historians effectively challenged this assumption with a body of research that found U.S. slaves to be much more contentious, to be purposive as actors fighting against slavery, and to have great strength in maintaining family and cultural ties in spite of oppressive social conditions.
In popular culture, a series of challenges to the Sambo stereotype have also surfaced. In particular, the Spike Lee movie Bamboozled (2000) tells the story of an African American television executive, Pierre Delacroix, who creates the impromptu idea for a new millennium minstrel show in order to save his job. To his chagrin, the white executives love the idea, and Lee effectively demonstrates the damage inflicted on the black actors selected to perform in blackface, as well as the larger societal damage inflicted on everybody involved in the production and consumption of racist stereotypes. In the closing scene, when Delacroix finally comes to terms with the monster he has created, he is seen in his office, which is filled with racist memorabilia. A Sambo coin bank takes on a life of its own until Delacroix eventually destroys it, along with all the lawn jockeys, blackface knick-knacks, and Mammy cookie jars.
As much as this movie was intended to put executives and white audiences on the spot for the perpetuation of stereotypes, it is clear that the message has not been fully received. In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), a character named Jar Jar Binks was introduced, and though his form is frog-inspired, his mode of speech and general demeanor is Sambo-inspired. The continuing struggle for African American actors is to find roles that allow them to play more than the fool. Most of the television shows featuring African American casts are comedic in genre, and they invariably have one or more characters playing the hapless fool. A strong case could be made that the history of being white in America corresponds with a strong fascination with all things black, except for black people. It is within this context that blackface minstrels, television comedies, Eminem, Elvis Presley, and contemporary jazz and blues bars make sense.
SEE ALSO Blackness; Comic Books; Film Industry; Jim Crow; Memín Pinguín; Racism; Television; Uncle Tom
Bean, Annemarie, James V. Hatch, and Brooks McNamara, eds. 1996. Inside the Minstrel Mask: Readings in Nineteenth-Century Blackface Minstrelsy. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.
Elkins, Stanley M. 1959. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Roediger, David. 1999. The Wages of Whiteness. New York: Verso Books.
Strausbaugh, John. 2006. Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult and Imitation in American Culture. New York: Penguin Books.
Ronald L. Mize Jr.