A “Sambo’s” restaurant in Denver in the 1970s. Photo credit: Claudio Zaccherini /Shutterstock.
Some Denny’s restaurants once bore the name “Sambo’s.” Sambo is a character featured in the children’s story Little Black Sambo, set in India, written by Helen Bannerman, a Scottish author, and first published in England in 1898. After it appeared in America a year later, the book inspired an outpouring of spinoff Sambo books, cartoons, dolls, musical recordings, and films that lampooned black people as lazy and shiftless.
In other words, Sambo is a well-known racist caricature. Yet when I said as much on Twitter (in response to a thread initiated by activist Shaun King and actor Seth Rogen), Twitter blocked my account.
In three sequential tweets, I had said that Denny’s restaurants once bore the name Sambo’s, that Little Black Sambo books were still available in my public library when I was a kid, and that my mother hit the roof when she saw that I’d checked out a Sambo book. (My mother conveyed her concerns to the librarian. The next time we went to the public library, all the Little Black Sambo books had been removed.)
I contacted Twitter and asked them what the problem was with my tweet.
The response? I had violated Twitter’s rules.
Which rules?, I asked. No response.
I contacted Twitter again: I hoped to avoid violations going forward, and sought clarification regarding Twitter’s generic rules. I asked if Twitter objects to people criticizing corporations. No response.
I asked if Twitter objects to the use of the word Sambo in historic context. No response.
But soon after I contacted Twitter, my tweet disappeared from Shaun King’s thread.
Twitter may argue that blocking my tweet protected followers from exposure to Sambo. But in doing so, Twitter was trying to erase America’s racist past, just as some publishers have tried to do with Helen Bannerman’s story.
That’s problematic because an unambiguous depiction of history is critical, it helps us learn from the missteps of the past. At a time when reality is being eclipsed by fake news, when the truth matters more than ever, Twitter’s arbitrary race monitoring should alarm us all.
Long before Helen Bannerman wrote Little Black Sambo, the Sambo image was circulating in American culture. The pejorative “yah, yah Sambo” appeared regularly in minstrel shows where black people were made to look foolish and inept. In Bannerman’s book, which she is said to have written to entertain her young daughters while the family was traveling by train, Little Black Sambo is an Indian boy who outsmarts four tigers he encounters while playing in an Indian jungle. The tigers end up chasing each other around a tree at such a rapid pace that they turn to ghee, an East Indian butter which Sambo’s mother, Black Mumbo, uses to make pancakes for her family. Focusing solely on the plot, Bannerman’s storyline does not appear to denigrate black people. But the accompanying illustrations, a black child with unkempt hair and pronounced facial features, disparage blacks. And, of course, the child’s name and that of his mother were consistent with negative stereotyping of black people.
While the restaurant was reportedly the namesake of its founders, Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett, they chose to amplify the connection to Little Black Sambo. Murals in some Sambo’s restaurants showed the book’s main character — a child with large lips, wiry hair, and a broad grin–engaged in demeaning activities. (In later years, the restaurant’s menus stress the character’s links to India, and show Sambo wearing a turban.) Objecting to the offensive name, a commission declared, “the use of the name ‘Sambo’s’ had the effect of notifying black persons that they were unwelcome at Sambo’s restaurants because of their race.”
It’s no accident that the restaurant’s name survived the Civil Rights Act of 1964, federal legislation to eliminate racism in public spaces. Racism persists, sociologist Lawrence Bobo argues, precisely because eradicating it is not merely about changing the nation’s laws. It also involves challenging the collective identity of white Americans, as they have played an outsized role in shaping and policing the boundaries of mainstream culture. When federal legislation bans racist practices, racist images tend to live on in the culture.
The sense of group position, introduced by sociologist Herbert Blumer, explains why this is so. He rejects the view that racism is rooted in mere animus toward a racial group different from one’s own. It is not. Racism is about preserving the ranking of groups by race, with black people positioned permanently at the bottom of this hierarchy where opportunities to get ahead are severely limited. The key to sustaining the hierarchy is to convince white people that their position at the top is justifiable because they belong to an exclusive group.
In the American context, Sambo reflected social norms consistent with the belief that white people belonged to a superior race. Featured in minstrel shows, on postcards, and as a commemorative stamp, the image was ubiquitous. In the early 1800s, it served as one justification for slavery, perpetuating the myth that blacks were content being held captive, the slave a “harmless, empty-headed figure of fun, who wouldn’t have the sense to revolt if he cared to, which he didn’t.”
To be sure, Sambo was not the only cultural object manufactured to suture the inferiority of black people. A set of cultural objects mass-produced from the 1890s through the 1950s were designed to turn black people into caricatures reminiscent of slavery, what sociologist Steven Dubin terms symbolic slavery.
Now coveted as “black memorabilia,” these objects were once enormously popular among working-class whites. They allowed people like them (who had never owned slaves and could not afford a black servant) to put blacks into their service symbolically, performing tasks once relegated to slaves. Objects included salt and pepper shakers depicting dark-skinned blacks dressed in slave garb, cookie jars shaped in the stereotypical image of a rotund slave woman, paper towel holders with outstretched brown hands, lawn jockeys, and so on. The white elite benefitted too from the distribution of these objects because they primed working-class whites to form political alliances anchored in race rather than their class position, an allegiance still salient today. These objects both signaled white superiority (i.e. white people are not servants) and concealed the way in which supposed “natural” characteristics associated with black people are socially defined and infused with meaning.
Entrenched beliefs about the proper racial order were also marketed to children. A study of picture books found that they portray preferred racial interactions. From 1936–1955, they presented blacks as subservient, expendable characters, consistent with the status assigned to blacks in the larger society. But as the civil rights movement took hold, something surprising happened: black characters disappeared. Almost none of the picture books published from 1958–1964 included them. Publishers knew that subservient black characters were no longer permissible, but were unwilling to expose children to the new social norm — black characters on equal footing with whites.
As heightened awareness of systemic racism spreads throughout the United States, many established corporations will have to make difficult decisions about how to address their racist past. For example, Disney recently elected not to make their controversial 1946 film, Song of the South, available to the public on newly launched Disney+. Although Whoopi Goldberg argued Disney should show the film at the 2017 D23 Conference, “so we can talk about what it was and where it came from and why it came out,” Disney’s Bob Iger declared back in 2011 that Song of the South, “wouldn’t necessarily sit right or feel right to a number of people today.”
Exactly what was Song of the South? Based on the Uncle Remus children’s book series, the film is set in Georgia during the Reconstruction Era. Uncle Remus, a supposedly content sharecropper portrayed by James Baskett, befriends a 7-year-old white boy who moves with his mother from Atlanta to his grandmother’s plantation. Through black dialogue, minstrelsy, and deferential black characters, the film romanticizes the servile relationship between black and white people established during enslavement.
And in case the obsequious black characters, black dialect, and plantation setting fail to signal Disney’s beliefs about the proper place for black people in society, Uncle Remus hints that slavery was the best of times, saying with deep regret that life “a long time ago” when “every day was mighty satisfactual…’twas better all around.” The NAACP slammed the film in 1946, denouncing it as “ a glorified picture of slavery.” At the film’s premiere, protesters marched outside the theatre chanting, “The Song of the South is slightly off-key because Disney says it’s wrong to be free.” Even those who have never seen the film are likely familiar with its exuberant Oscar-winning song, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” Baskett received an honorary Oscar for his performance too, but because the ceremony was segregated, he was not allowed to attend.
Meanwhile, the last existing Sambo’s restaurant — the original one in Santa Barbara — elected to change its name in response to this year’s ongoing protests against persistent anti-black racism in America.
At a time when ever more people turn to social media to understand the world, it seems misguided for Twitter to be trying to combat racism through arbitrary censorship. By flagging my tweet, Twitter was complicit in covering up the work that racism was invented to do. Rather than helping corporations to hide America’s racist past, Twitter should permit truthful posts that would allow people to grapple with it.
Karyn Lacy is a sociologist at the University of Michigan and author of Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class.