Sambo (racial term)

Sambo (racial term)

Sambo is a racial term for a person with mixed Amerindian and African heritage in the Caribbean, also for a black or South Asian person in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is considered a racial slur in the U.S. and the UK, but not in the Caribbean.


Little Black Sambo

Several origins of the term itself have been proposed, but it gained prominence through the children's book "The Story of Little Black Sambo" by Helen Bannerman, in 1898. It was the story of a boy named Sambo who outwitted a group of hungry tigers. The book contains many Caribbean references.

The setting of Bannerman's story was in India — as can be seen by the presence of tigers and the reference to ghee. The book's original illustrations show a Sambo character resembling a golliwog, a European version sometimes viewed as an iconic, racist "darky" stereotype, which could be taken as a stereotype of African people. As the book made its way across the Atlantic to the U.S., the illustrations were adapted to the possibly more obvious stereotype known as blackface in the U.S. At this time, the racism of the term was not overt or hostile. But the unconscious racism evident in the blackface stereotype was clear. When the eventual public uproar brought the issue to the attention of the general public, some renounced the use of the term "Sambo," but others embraced it as a racial slur.Fact|date=February 2007 Thus, the use of "Sambo" as a racist term went from being unintentional to being open and derogatory.Fact|date=February 2007

The origins of the word "Sambo" stem from an occurrence believed to be at the height of the British Empire. An unknown slave ship had docked in the then-popular Morecambe Bay area to buy various sundry items; once back at sea it was noticed that a black member of the ship's staff had been left ashore. This man's name was Sambo; shunned by the people of Morecambe, he was made to live out the remainder of his days on the outskirts of the villages at that time. To this day there is a monument known as 'Sambo's Grave' on the coast of the Lancashire village of Heysham.

One recent edition has renamed the book "The Story of Little Babaji", and the blackface caricatures were replaced with illustrations that reflected the character's Indian origins in a non-marginalizing manner.

Alternative origins

Sambo probably came into English from the Latin American Spanish word "zambo", which in turn may have come from one of three African language sources. Webster's (Third International Dictionary) holds that it may have come from the Kongo word "nzambu" (monkey). Note, though, that the "z" of (Latin American) Spanish is pronounced as the English "s" rather than as the "z" in the word "nzambu". Another source holds that it is a variant of a Foulah word meaning "uncle," or a Hausa word for "second son."Fact|date=January 2008 The Royal Spanish Academy gives the origin from a Latin word which in modern Spanish means "bow-legged," but does not explain how this would become a racial term. Zambo is still the Spanish word in Latin America for a person of mixed African and Native American descent.

Examples of "Sambo" as a common slave name can be found as far back as the 18th century. In Thackeray's novel "Vanity Fair" (serialised from 1847), the black servant of the Sedley family from Chapter One, is called Sambo. Similarly, in Harriet Beecher Stowe's controversial novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852), one of Simon Legree's overseers is named Sambo. Instances of it being used as a stereotypical name for African Americans can be found as early as the Civil War. Thus, the generalization problem — Bannerman, a Scot living in India, gave an Indian character a name associated, in the U.S., with African slaves. The name does not seem to have acquired the intentional, open racist connotation until the first half of the 20th century — possibly in defiance of protests made by African Americans.Fact|date=June 2008

The once-popular "Sambo's" restaurant chain used the Helen Bannerman images to promote and decorate their restaurants although it was named after the chain's co-owners, Samuel Battistone and Newell Bohnett; "see Sambo's article for more details".

In modern British English, the term "Sambo" is only used offensively [ "Oxford English Dictionary"] Formerly, it had the technical meaning of a person having a mixture of black and white ancestry, more black than white — contrast with mulatto, quadroon, octoroon etc.

ambo imagery

In American animation in the 1930s and 1940s, the use of "Sambo" imagery was common in all the major animation houses. The scenes which show such imagery have either been cut from their respective cartoons, or the cartoons have been banned altogether.

In Japan, the "Sambo" depiction of people of African ancestry is still used in newspaper cartoons, manga, video games, anime and public service announcements. As late as 2004, a pamphlet informing about earthquake safety procedures was produced in darky iconographical style. After complaints, the pamphlet was redrawn.

* (occasionally unavailable)

In the popular manga and anime "Dragonball Z", the character known as Mr. Popo is an overweight black skinned genie with absurdly pouty red lips. The popular video game and anime series "Pokémon" has a character named Jynx with similar features. The Playstation Portable game, Loco Roco, has antagonists known as the Moja Troop which display features of this archetype.


* Boskin, Joseph (1986) "Sambo", New York: Oxford University Press
* Goings, Kenneth (1994) "Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping", Bloomington: Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-32592-7

External links

* e-texts of "The Story of Little Black Sambo":
** [ HTML version with the illustrations]
** [ Plain text version with no illustrations] (Project Gutenberg edition)

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