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Sambo. Little Black Sambo.
March 7, 2007 4:06 AM   Subscribe

Sambo's Restaurant It turns out that many people enjoyed Sambo's restaurants back in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but apparently the real tale of Sambo and the tigers eventually became so infused with racist overtones that it overwhelmed the dining chain and essentially brought it down. The chain was named, incidentally, after the two men who opened the first restaurant: Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett.
posted by davidmsc (55 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sam and Newell adopted the cute little boy and the tigers as mascots and logos for their fledling chain, and used pancakes (as referenced in the story) as one of their main draws. Back in 1998, CNN reported that the grandson of the owner, now operating the sole remaining Sambo's in the originail location, encountered opposition over his plans to expand the chain again.
"The cultural understanding of 'Little Black Sambo' is a negative," says Professor Frank Gilliam of UCLA. "It's meant to suggest that people of African descent are childlike, that they're irresponsible, that they're not fully developed human beings." Carol Codrington of Loyola Law School said the character was used to stereotype African Americans as shiftless and lazy.
That doesn't sound right to me - if you read the original story, it appears that Sambo is actually smart, mature, and resourceful. Furthermore, it seems likely that Sambo wasn't black or even from Africa, but rather hailed from India.
posted by davidmsc at 4:07 AM on March 7, 2007


I never understood this story as a kid. The tigers run around so fast that they turn into butter and then they eat them on pancakes? WTF?!?!? And yeah, the story is from India...there are no tigers native to Africa. Hasn't Frank Gilliam watched Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life?
posted by GavinR at 4:14 AM on March 7, 2007


But Little Black Sambo said, "You could wear them on your ears."

"So I could," said the Tiger: "that's a very good idea. Give them to me, and I won't eat you this time."


LOL
posted by Colloquial Collision at 4:19 AM on March 7, 2007


Ah, I see. It was all just a big misunderstanding then.
posted by psmealey at 4:24 AM on March 7, 2007


someone posted the little black sambo cartoon from the 1930's to videosift yesterday. It's interesting to see just how far we have come.

/self link

Also thanks for the tidbit on the restaurant, I had no idea.
posted by sourbrew at 5:15 AM on March 7, 2007


I remember the Sambo's restaurant in my town; it was pretty unassuming in a Denny's/IHOP sort of way. I always felt that they kinda got screwed by their choice of name/mascot though. I was interested to hear about the original one still existing.
posted by TedW at 5:32 AM on March 7, 2007


I had this book as a kid, and I never understood it as racist at all. Like another poster said, I thought Sambo was clever and fortunate. As a lifelong afficionado of pancakes, for me the happy ending could not have been better.

Mmmm. . . pancakes. . . .
posted by MasonDixon at 6:31 AM on March 7, 2007


We ate at one of these every time we went to my grandma's, it was somewhere between Denison and Dallas on I-75 in Texas...then one day, it became a Denny's. My dad had loved Sambo's, hated Denny's, so that was that. I remember liking it, but then...pancakes and syrup aren't a hard sell to a kid.

I didn't even know what Sambo referred to until much later, but my dad was pretty racist, so he wouldn't have cared anyway.
posted by emjaybee at 6:35 AM on March 7, 2007


In Swedish, "sambo" is short for "sammanboende" which means living together. Swedes introduce/refer to their partner as "my sambo"... which often results in some embarassing silence when speaking English.
posted by three blind mice at 6:36 AM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I remember hours of my childhood spent staring the turbaned Sambo w/Tiger murals (I think they were mosaics) inside of the San Diego Sambo's. At the time there was really nothing but waspy people in that area of San Diego so as a kid I was really fascinated by it. I thought it was really exotic.

Then I read the book & I remember thinking that he was a smart kid. Xenophobes can't cope with smart people in turbans, though...
posted by miss lynnster at 6:37 AM on March 7, 2007


(I seem to remember that in the murals, Sambo did have a turban, he wasn't just "black" sambo.)
posted by miss lynnster at 6:41 AM on March 7, 2007


Sambo is actually smart, mature, and resourceful. Furthermore, it seems likely that Sambo wasn't black or even from Africa, but rather hailed from India.
posted by davidmsc


Yes, but who cares about the facts? If something can be taken as racist, then it obviously is racist. See: the use of niggardly.
posted by The Deej at 6:45 AM on March 7, 2007


Just looked at the Sambo's website. I completely forgot how much I loved Sambo "Tiger Tamers" as a kid! Surreal to see that online, but even weirder to hear Bugs Bunny cartoon dialogue for a soundtrack. (I'm thinking Warner Bros. doesn't know they're doing that.)
posted by miss lynnster at 6:46 AM on March 7, 2007


Sambo and the tigers eventually became so infused with racist overtones

The passive voice here is telling. Who exactly infused them? As previous comments attest, a common reaction to those of us who read it in the day was one of smart kid, interesting story, nice pictures.

By the way, there are latter day editions which replace the charming illustrations of the Helen Bannerman's original; indeed, some of them re-write the whole damn thing. Just as they did with Penrod.

Child's play indeed.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:03 AM on March 7, 2007


After reading John Kricfalusi's blog for the last year, I admit that even though I see the racial stereotyping in a cartoon like Little Black Sambo, I also see some great animation, great gags, great artwork in both the design and backgrounds. Kricfalusi often post stills from cartoons we will never seen anywhere not but on YouTube or VideoSift now. It's unfortunate, but it is sadly understandable as well. I have seen some classic film with large crowds over the years, stuff that has been specifically chosen to highlight the differences between how people thought then and how they think now. And in a crowd in particular it is very difficult, if not impossible, to view run-of-the-mill stereotypes from those periods as offensive and to even "booooo!" the use of the stereotypes and the people that use them. It is VERY difficult to view such things in context of the time period in which they were created. And Sambo's restaurants suffered from exactly that. The times they were o' changin', and Sambos tried to retain a state of mind that became outdated by society's own movement forward. But, it's actually good to see that they have found a way to keep some sort of identity, and that they found a way to pull a different mascot and put a more positive spin on it.

Oh, I too always found the story of Sambo more about the kid being clever enough to outwit a tiger! AND get pancakes! (But I won't say the cartoon isn't gobsmacked with stereotypes, because it is.)
posted by smallerdemon at 7:09 AM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Doh!

"And in a crowd in particular it is very difficult, if not impossible, to view run-of-the-mill stereotypes from those periods as offensive..."

Very difficult if not impossible NOT to view them as offensive. Sorry.
posted by smallerdemon at 7:11 AM on March 7, 2007


Hey, I ate at the Santa Barbara Sambo's in January. I thought it curious that this was the only Sambo's I'd seen in the last 30 years or so.
posted by SteveInMaine at 7:11 AM on March 7, 2007


I remember Sambo's as being an analogue of Denny's, and while I was aware of "Little Black Sambo" as a Southern (USian) cultural artifact, the Sikh boy and tiger are what come to mind when I think about eating at Sambo's as a boy. That, and the pancakes were pretty good.
posted by pax digita at 7:14 AM on March 7, 2007


Forge for her the magic Sambo,
Forge the plates in many colors,
Thy reward shall be the virgin,
Thou shalt win this bride of beauty;
Go and bring the lovely pancakes
To thy home in Kalevala.
posted by octobersurprise at 7:19 AM on March 7, 2007 [4 favorites]


In high school, I spent many early mornings drinking cups and cups of coffee at the local Sambos...tryiing to sober-up just enough to go home. Great pancakes.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:21 AM on March 7, 2007


If something can be taken as racist, then it obviously is racist.

See: Aunt Jemima. Quaker Oats took away the do-rag, but the brand hasn't been harmed by the obvious "racist" overtones.

From the racist link: The figure of the mammy occupies a central place in the lore of the Old South and has long been used to ullustrate distinct social phenomena, including racial oppression and class identity. In the early twentieth century, the mammy became immortalized as Aunt Jemima, the spokesperson for a line of ready-mixed breakfast products.
posted by three blind mice at 7:23 AM on March 7, 2007


Forge for her the magic Sambo
Oh you naughty naughty punface...

posted by Lentrohamsanin at 7:30 AM on March 7, 2007


Folklorists have spent a lot of time on the Sambo tale and its roots. The original story itself, written by a Scottish woman living in India, is a document of its time - a tale playing up the quaintness and otherness and supposed primitivism of the culture she found herself in. As the story was picked up and copied throughout the world, re-writers imposed their own racial analogues - in the U.S., the Indian Sambo took on hallmarks of the African-American minstrel 'pickaninny' stereotype. So, from very early on, the name "Sambo" was associated with racist black caricature. Redesigns and pirated editions of the book multiplied during the early 20th century, many containing black images and language that most would consider patently offensive today. Progressive educators as early as the 1930s were recommending the removal of the book from classrooms due to the racist nature of the illustrations in most editions.

In addition, though it's possible to take a neutral enough reading of the tale itself, it's still the imagined creation of a white woman in a colonial role, suggesting itself as a traditional tale from an indigenous culture. Somewhat problematic. It is not a traditional folk story, nor do the story and illustrations accurately reflect any cultures or naming traditions of India. I also hate to defend the story very far because it's just not that good a story. It's all right, but there are innumerable folktales that are far better demonstrations of youthful cleverness. To me, it is simply just not a story worth rescuing.

It's quite complex, as is the way pejorative stereotypes have accrued around the tale. In my eyes, the main thing is to notice the way in which the story has become a lightning rod for anxieties and activism around race. And as far as the restaurant goes, I don't admire their obstinacy about the name when in fact, there had already been 50+ years of vocal objection to the representation of black Americans suggested by the story. Though the origin story attempts to say that the use of the Sambo tale was a marketing "afterhought," they were eager enough to use this cultural meme for profit at a time it was considered advantageous. The company's slowness to change in response to a changing society says much more than does any potential argument for clearing the story's always dubious name.
posted by Miko at 7:32 AM on March 7, 2007 [3 favorites]


Hrmm... my gf always calls sandwiches "sambos". Now I have to call her out for being such a racist.
posted by antifuse at 7:32 AM on March 7, 2007


I too ate there as a kid in So Cal (probably the San Diego locale) and read the book-- it was in my church's Sunday School library collection.

There is still a Sambo's in Wilmington (NC) only it is called Rambo's or Hambo's or something. Dave points it out to me every time we drive down there as a place of happy childhood memories.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:44 AM on March 7, 2007


I really remember the Sambo in the murals of the San Diego restaurant showing him as distinctly indian. So it's always been strange to me that he became African American somehow.... especially since he was hanging out with tigers.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:53 AM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Expurgated Penrod? Wow. Way to rewrite history. One of the great joys of reading is to enter the mindset of another time and place. If I recall correctly, Penrod does not live in the South so the "offensive descriptions" would have been considered normal usage for the country as a whole at the turn of the century. Yeah, lets just white wash that whole time, shall we?

Thinking about the doughnut scene still makes me smile, however.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:53 AM on March 7, 2007


I think it's disingenuous to point to people's ignorance of the non-racist origins of various things when the understanding of the racist use of them has been, and is, so much more vital to their survival. Which one requires a greater ignorance of history?

Sambo, and many other images would be used to wreck the Reconstruction, paint black people as incapable and remove them from what power they had gained, and open the floodgates of violence against them, bringing about the second rise of the KKK.

But, as always, I'm sure they should ignore 100 years of propaganda for somebody's childhood heehee's.
posted by yeloson at 8:01 AM on March 7, 2007


I've never read the book, but I'm suspecting the situation is that the book isn't racist, but the use of the character since then has been, so people now just assume the book must have been as well.
posted by Bugbread at 8:12 AM on March 7, 2007


Many fond memories of Sambos in Westfield, Mass in the early 70s. He was certainly from India, and always outsmarted the tigers. The phrase "little black sambo" is somewhere in my head too, but not necessarily associated with the resto. Seem to recall that "black" was a term then used for just about anyone with brownish skin, not just what's called Black today.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:18 AM on March 7, 2007


miss lynnster writes "So it's always been strange to me that he became African American somehow"

I know it's become a bit of a reflexive response, but remember that "black" and "African-American" are, in fact, not synonymous. This is true in the case of a friend of the family whose father was Algerian, mother was American, was white as the driven snow, and yet "African-American", and in the case of the later characterizations of Sambo, who were black, and yet not African-American. Remember, there's a hell of a lot of black people in the world who have no relation with America.
posted by Bugbread at 8:19 AM on March 7, 2007


seanmpuckett writes "Seem to recall that 'black' was a term then used for just about anyone with brownish skin, not just what's called Black today."

From what I understand, "black" is still sometimes used to refer to folks from the sub-continent (India, Bangladesh, etc.) in the UK.
posted by Bugbread at 8:20 AM on March 7, 2007


If nothing else, "sambo" was also used as a racist slur, and I'm sure that would have been enough to damn the book and the restaurant, even if they weren't named with racist intent.

I mean, a book called "The Clever Little Darkie" wouldn't sell well these days either, no matter how enlightened it was.

(In fact, leave racism out of it — it's bad for business to have a name that comes across as rude, period. A family restaurant chain called Fuckwad's Flapjacks would also be a losing proposition.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:42 AM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


The original story may or may not have been racist, but the word has been used as a slur for so long that trying to rehabilitate it is not really worth the aggravation. Which is too bad since I ate at a Sambo's once on a family trip to visit friends in Georgia and as I recall the food wasn't bad, but..dustbin of history and all that.

A family restaurant chain called Fuckwad's Flapjacks would also be a losing proposition.

I'd be dubious about the syrup, at the very least.
posted by jonmc at 9:07 AM on March 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


Anyone who needs a reminder of where Americans took the Little Black Sambo character in the first half of the 20th century should search EBay for the term "sambo" and see dozens of items that depict the worst stereotypes this country could conjure up, many with such cultural approval they were used on products.



One reason among many the restaurant owner shouldn't go national with a new chain in that name: The trademark may be unregistrable. The USPTO won't grant trademarks to racially offensive terms, as Damon Wayans discovered when attempting to register "Nigga."
posted by rcade at 9:19 AM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


An image I included was allowed in preview but eaten when it was posted.
posted by rcade at 9:20 AM on March 7, 2007


Xenophobes can't cope with smart people in turbans, though...

Can too. They vaporize just as easily, and the turban makes targeting easier. You do gotta remember to twitch the gridfire bolt down a little bit so it doesn't just pass through the turban, though, if you want a headshot.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:23 AM on March 7, 2007


Thanks Miko, very interesting. Do you think this has parallels with the golliwog character?
posted by peacay at 9:41 AM on March 7, 2007


In fact, leave racism out of it — it's bad for business to have a name that comes across as rude, period.

How do you explain Fuddrucker's, then?
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:42 AM on March 7, 2007


Thanks Miko for the thoughtful comment.

I think it would be instructive to see pictures of everyone posting in this thread. Of course, people of any given ethnic background hold a wide range of opinions on any given issue, but I'd be willing to bet that the majority of folks who's reaction here is something like "Well, that Sambo seems pretty harmless to me, and I sure loved those pancakes!" are, in our culture, considered 'white'.

I'd suggest a viewing of Ethnic Notions for anyone, well, for everyone really. If you live in our world, you are impacted by racial stereotypes, and understanding some of the context behind these (sometimes, especially to white people, invisible) stereotypes can only help all of us to treat each other with compassion and respect.
posted by serazin at 9:55 AM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


See also: Uncle Tom.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:00 AM on March 7, 2007


I know it's become a bit of a reflexive response, but remember that "black" and "African-American" are, in fact, not synonymous. This is true in the case of a friend of the family whose father was Algerian, mother was American, was white as the driven snow, and yet "African-American", and in the case of the later characterizations of Sambo, who were black, and yet not African-American. Remember, there's a hell of a lot of black people in the world who have no relation with America.

Yes, and I am fully aware of that. As we are discussing an American pancake house it didn't seem wholly inappropriate or politically incorrect. to use that phrase in this context, though. YMMV.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:01 AM on March 7, 2007


miss lynnster writes "As we are discussing an American pancake house it didn't seem wholly inappropriate or politically incorrect. to use that phrase in this context, though."

Sorry, I probably phrased myself poorly. What I meant to say, was, basically:

You said:

miss lynnster writes "So it's always been strange to me that he became African American somehow"

To my knowledge, even though he was changed from Indian, he was changed to African, not African-American.

(I may be wrong about that. I'm not versed enough in my Little Black Sambo enough to know)
posted by Bugbread at 10:20 AM on March 7, 2007


I've traveled a great deal in my life & I fully get that there are black people the world over. MY COMMENT was that I didn't see how the book went from being about an Indian boy to being about slaves.

Regarding the initial release of the book in America:
"...All American children did not see the same book, however. Though the authorized Stokes edition sold well and never went out of print, a host of other versions quickly began to appear from mass-market publishers, from reprint houses, from small, outlying firms unconstrained by the mutual courtesies of the major publishers. A few are straight knock-offs of the book that Bannerman made, without her name on the title page; the majority were reillustrated -- with gross, degrading caricatures that set Sambo down on the old plantation or, with equal distortiveness, deposited him in Darkest Africa. Libraries stocked the Stokes edition, and a few others selectively. But overall the bootleg Sambos were much cheaper, more widely distributed, and vastly more numerous."
posted by miss lynnster at 10:47 AM on March 7, 2007


miss lynnster writes "with gross, degrading caricatures that set Sambo down on the old plantation"

Righto. Wasn't aware that there were plantation incarnations. Please accept my apology.
posted by Bugbread at 2:32 PM on March 7, 2007


I remember eating at Sambo's when I was very, very little. Yay, pancakes! It's pretty sad that it got taken down due to its name - you can't really change the name of a restaurant very easily, since name recognition is so important. I'm trying to think of any restaurant chain that survived a name change. Hey, maybe we can use the racial slur effect to pull a Santorum on various corporations we don't like. We just have to retroactively work the slur in somehow. McDonald's might not be a bad place to start.
posted by adipocere at 4:12 PM on March 7, 2007


I think it's disingenuous to point to people's ignorance of the non-racist origins of various things when the understanding of the racist use of them has been, and is, so much more vital to their survival. Which one requires a greater ignorance of history?

Would you say the same about Huckleberry Finn? Little Black Sambo wasn't popular because the characters had racist names, it was popular because it's an entertaining parable.
posted by owhydididoit at 6:40 PM on March 7, 2007


Papa loves Sambo's.
Mama loves Sambo's.
Look at 'em sway at it;
Gettin' so gay at it;
Shoutin' "olay" at it, wow (huh)!

Papa loves Sambo's.
Mama loves Sambo's.
Papa's au fait at it;
Look what he ate at it;
He's gonna gain weight at it, now (huh)!
posted by octobersurprise at 7:31 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


"olay" s/b "ofay"
posted by octobersurprise at 7:35 PM on March 7, 2007


That Sambo's in Santa Barbara was the first and is the last, all the others have closed. It's not far from the first Motel 6, coincidentally.
posted by cali at 9:40 PM on March 7, 2007


"A family restaurant chain called Fuckwad's Flapjacks would also be a losing proposition"

Speak for yourself.
I'd like to eat at ButtFuckers too. dOOd!
posted by metasonix at 11:07 PM on March 7, 2007


I spent a lot of time drinking 10-cent coffee at Sambo's, on W Burnside, in Portland...way back in 1975. I love pancakes and even more, butter. But even back then people talked about the racism of the name. But it was commonly believed that Sambo had been African, but changed to Indian to beat the racism.
posted by Goofyy at 12:55 AM on March 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Would you say the same about Huckleberry Finn?

No - Huckleberry Finn is an actively anti-racist book. It was intended as so when written by Clemens. Its teaching in school needs to be handled carefully because of the powerful themes and language in it, yes; just as does the teaching of Catcher in the Rye or Native Son. But its scope, quality, history, and significance are not comparable to 'Little Black Sambo.' If there is any similarity, it's in the book's power to stimulate discussion about race.
posted by Miko at 4:14 PM on March 8, 2007


All politics aside, the (only) Sambo's in Santa Barbara is quite good for breakfast and nothing like a Denny's/IHOP. There's a huge line for breakfast/brunch during the weekend, though.
posted by JMOZ at 7:56 PM on March 8, 2007


Just ate the SB Sambo's a few weeks ago, and was trying to explain to a foreign guest what the whole brouhaha was all about, which was kind of hard. Thanks for the background.
posted by cell divide at 8:13 PM on March 8, 2007


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