The term “sambo” developed after the publication of Helen Bannerman’s childrens storybook, The Story of the Little Black Sambo, in 1899. In her book, Bannerman tells a story of a young boy and his parents. The young boy’s parents give him many expensive articles of clothing, that include the following: a red coat, blue trousers, a green umbrella and purple-and-crimson shoes. The boy is then goes for a walk in the jungle where he hears two tigers talking about their desire to eat him. The boy attempts to change the mind of the tigers by offering to give them his new clothes. This leads to the tigers getting into a fight, in hopes to determine who is the strongest and overall, greatest in the jungle. Distracted from fighting one another, the tigers do not realize that they are walking in melted butter, and eventually melt into the butter. Without panic, the young by takes his clothes and the butter home. The story concludes with young boy eating 169 pancakes that his mother made from the butter.
Although there are no obvious racial implications made in the story, the illustrations is what caused controversy around Bannerman’s story. The book include drawings of very dark people with thick red lips and wide white eyes. Eventually, this story became a cartoon. Below is a video of the comic that sprouted from this story book. It can be seen through this video how the characters in the storybook were envisioned to be.
What does the term “sambo” actually mean? According to Etymology Dictionary, the term “sambo” is a “Stereotypical name for male black person.” The term “sambo” was used as a racial slur by white people, in effort to degrade blacks. Eventually, the term “sambo” was reclaimed by the black community’ going from being a term used for degradation to being a term used to describe personality. The article “Myth or Truth: A White and Black View of Slavery” discusses how slavery impacted the black community and also exposed myths and truths concerning slavery. The article states “Is it possible to deal with “Sambo” as a type? The characteristics that have been claimed for the type come principally from southern lore. Sambo was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing…” (Douglas 348).
Michelle Cliff’s decision to have Clare recall that her father referred to her as a”little black sambo” was not to invoke racial discrimination. In fact, it was to demonstrate the reclamation of the term “sambo” as a way to describe personality, who she was. In this section of the novel, readers see Clare recalling all the terms her father used to describe who she was. Clare’s father projected these labels, such as being a “little black sambo” which led Clare’s struggle to progress on her quest for self-identification.
Station, Animation, director. YouTube. YouTube, YouTube, 11 Apr. 2015, www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDslE0CMLvc.
“Sambo (N.1).” Index, www.etymonline.com/word/sambo?ref=etymonline_crossreference#etymonline_v_22665.
Douglas, Robert L. “Myth or Truth.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 19, no. 3, 1989, pp. 343–360., doi:10.1177/002193478901900305.