sambo meets jim crow

i thought this worth sharing.  i’ve been questioning myself as to why i keep posting these old negative images… what’s my point?… how is this helping?… i’m not exactly sure, but i think it has something to do with wanting everyone to examine the framework from which our racial paradigm originated.  to see how these notions of majority vs. minority (and all of the implications held therein) came to be ingrained into our national subconscious… how they continue to be perpetuated on some level by today’s media/advertising… and how, perhaps, we just take it all for granted… “it’s just the way things are, the way we are”… but it’s all so preposterous… things can be any way we choose to make them, any way we choose to see them… choose to see ourselves and each other…

The Black Conscription.

When Black Meets Black Then Comes the End(?) of War.

Punch, Volume 45, September 26, 1863, p. 129

To modern sensibilities, this is one of the most offensive of Tenniel’s cartoons, as its theme is the notion that black men are incapable of becoming good soldiers. In a (wholly hypothetical) meeting of Union and Confederate black troops on the battlefield, martial ardor dissolves into comic stereotype. The Northern conscript is identifiable by his striped trousers. His Southern counterpart, dressed in a white cotton uniform distinguished only by a capital letter “S” on his belt and bandolier, breaks into an open-mouthed grin and begins to caper as the two clasp hands. Behind them, surrounding their respective flags, representatives of the two black conscript armies socialize with obvious amiability, forgetting all pretense of military discipline. In word balloons, the Northern soldier asks “Dat you Sambo? Yeah, yeah!” while his Southern counterpart responds “Bless my heart, how am you, Jim?”

While the ranks of Northern black regiments ultimately included many “contraband” fugitives from slave states, the earliest black troops (such as the famed 54th Massachusetts) were recruited exclusively from the free black populations of Northern states. Many of these units acquitted themselves bravely on the field of battle. Officially, there was no conscription of blacks as combat soldiers by either side: all were volunteers. While blacks were used by the Southern forces throughout the war in non-combat roles (especially as laborers for tasks such as the construction of fortifications), the raising of black troops to fight for the Confederacy, though proposed cautiously by a few within the military, was vehemently resisted by most Southerners as deleterious to the slave system until the war was almost over. There is no record that the few units of black Confederate soldiers, organized during the final weeks before the fall of Richmond (nearly eighteen months after the publication of this cartoon), ever met black Union troops in combat. The name Sambo, the “characteristic” dialogue of the two principal figures, and the capering dance of the Southern black soldier all are based on the stage caricatures of blacks presented by (mostly white) actors wearing burnt-cork makeup in the minstrel shows popular during the mid-nineteenth century, some of which had toured to London.

The cartoon’s subcaption is a play on the old English proverb “When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war,” a way of describing a situation in which two sides are so equally matched that neither is likely to prevail. Its use is documented as far back as the seventeenth century, and it had been quoted by the popular novelist Anthony Trollope as a chapter title in Doctor Thorne, published a few years prior to the Civil War in 1858.

African Americans in the Tenniel Cartoons

Black Americans appear in twelve of the cartoons. Tenniel tends to treat them in a condescending, stereotypic manner. In his own time such images were doubtless regarded as humorous; the modern reader is more likely to see them as examples of blatant racism. Southern slaves are typically shown wearing simple white cotton work shirts and short trousers, and are usually barefoot [601201610119;650506]. Free Northern blacks are sometimes differentiated by their better-dressed appearance, including long trousers and shoes [620809630808]. Blacks (always male) are alternatively the hapless victims of oppression by the Southern slavocracy [610119], the dupes of Lincoln and his Black Republican cronies [620809630124], or gleeful observers of the white man’s cataclysmic war [610518;620913]. Tenniel and his contemporary British audience seem a bit too eager to dismiss out of hand the notion that blacks themselves had the capacity to be good soldiers, willing to fight and die for their freedom [630926641119] — perhaps because of concerns about the possible implications of such a radical idea for the future of their own Anglo-Saxon Empire’s dominion over darker-skinned people around the world.

The cartoons’ captions and text balloons often contain examples of pseudo-black dialect speech. While the intent is humorous, it also serves as a way to underscore the presumed social and intellectual gulf between the childlike, uneducated African American and Punch‘s sophisticated, urbane, upper-class readers. It is unlikely that Tenniel and his colleagues were familiar with actual black speech. As an avid patron of the theatre, Tenniel may have attended performances by American minstrel troupes, some of which had toured to London. In these shows, white actors in burnt-cork blackface makeup parodied the “characteristic” language, music, and dancing of blacks (who in many American cities were not themselves permitted to appear on stage). From the vantage of hindsight, we can see today that the minstrel shows allowed the dominant white culture to use humor to depersonalize blacks and perpetuate stereotypes of racial inferiority.

Scene From the American “Tempest.”Punch, Volume 44, January 24, 1863, p. 35

In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the misshapen slave Caliban is promised his freedom by a pair of drunken rogues, Stephano and Trinculo. Although they desire only to use the gullible Caliban to accomplish their own selfish ends, they gain his trust by feigning friendship and equality. In Act III, Scene 2, they gleefully plot with him to take vengeance on his master, Prospero, by destroying his property, murdering him, and ravishing his daughter.

Many in the South feared that newly emancipated slaves would violently turn upon their erstwhile masters. Apparently these fears were also shared by some in England. Here, Lincoln stands in for Stephano and Trinculo, handing a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation to a slave and giving tacit approval to the black man’s desire to take revenge upon his former oppressor.


re: little. black. sambo.

I just wanted to post a bit more about the history of Little Black Sambo.  I think the most important aspect of this history is the way the character/story has made people feel about themselves.  White privilege protects a majority of people from the hurts that can be evoked by “harmless” depictions in story books and advertisements.  The price for that protection can come in the form indifferent ignorance.

  • “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.”
  • Langston Hughes pointed out that Little Black Sambo was “amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at.”

The following is excerpted from an essay found at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia:

Arguably, the most controversial picaninny image is the one created by Helen Bannerman…The book appeared in England in 1899 and was an immediate success. The next year it was published in the United States by Frederick A. Stokes, a mainstream publisher. It was even more successful than it had been in England. The book’s success led to many imitators — and controversies.

Was Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo racist? The major characters: Little Black Sambo, his mother (Black Mumbo) and his father (Black Jumbo) used standard English, not the bastardized English then associated with Blacks. Stereotypical anti-Black traits — for example, laziness, stupidity, and immorality — were absent from the book. Little Black Sambo, the character, was bright and resourceful unlike most portrayals of Black children. Nevertheless, the book does have anti-Black overtones, most notably the illustrations. Sambo is crudely drawn, an obvious caricature… The names Mumbo and Jumbo also make the characters seem nonsensical at a time when Blacks were routinely thought to be inherently dumb.

The illustrations were racially offensive, and so was the name Sambo. At the time that the book was originally published Sambo was an established anti-Black epithet, a generic degrading reference. It symbolized the lazy, grinning, docile, childlike, good-for-little servant. Maybe Bannerman was unfamiliar with Sambo’s American meaning. For many African Americans Little Black Sambo was an entertaining story ruined by racist pictures and racist names. Julius Lester, who has recently co-authored Sam and the Tigers, an updated Afrocentric version of Little Black Sambo, wrote:

When I read Little Black Sambo as a child, I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he. Even as I sit here and write the feelings of shame, embarrassment and hurt come back. And there was a bit of confusion because I liked the story and I especially liked all those pancakes, but the illustrations exaggerated the racial features society had made it clear to me represented my racial inferiority — the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red protruding lips. I did not feel good about myself as a black child looking at those pictures.

Little Black Sambo served as the boiler plate for a spate of other versions, many of which used mean-spirited racist drawings and dialogue. The vulgar reprint versions were symbolic of Black-White relations. Little Black Sambo’s popularity coincided with the crystallization of Jim Crow laws and etiquette. Blacks were denied basic human and civil rights, discriminated against in the labor market, barred from many public schools and libraries, harassed at voting booths, subjected to physical violence, and generally treated as second class citizens. The year that Little Black Sambo came to America a Whites-initiated race riot occurred in New Orleans. It was effectively a pogrom — Blacks were beaten, their schools and homes destroyed. Little Black Sambo did not, of course, cause riots, but it entered America during a period of strained and harsh race relations. It was, simply, another insult in the daily lives of African Americans.

The anti-Little Black Sambo movement started in the 1930s and continued into the 1970s. Black educators and civil rights leaders organized numerous campaigns to get the book banned from public libraries, especially in elementary schools. In the 1940s and 1950s the book was dropped from many lists of “Recommended Books.” By the 1960s the book was seen as a remnant of a racist past.

Little Black Sambo was again popular by the mid-1990s. Its recent popularity is a result of many factors, including a white backlash against perceived political correctness. This is evident in internet discussions. Americans, Black and White, are rereading the original book (and some of the unauthorized reprints). There is agreement that Bannerman’s book is entertaining. However, there is little agreement regarding whether it is racist. White readers tend to focus on Bannerman’s non-racist intentions and the unfairness of judging yesterday’s “classics” by today’s standards of racial equality. Blacks find the book’s title and the illustrations offensive. Most of the debate centers on Bannerman’s version; there is no debating the racism explicit in later editions of the book produced by other writers and publishers.

© Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology
Ferris State University
Oct., 2000


inspired by mad men…sort of

I’ve actually been planning to blog this for a while, but I got lazy and tucked it into a folder on my computer.  Last week’s episode of Mad Men has inspired me to get it together though.  If you saw the episode, you probably know what this is all about.  The blackface.  The throwback to the “good old days” when it was just hilarious (and not at all inappropriate) to mock the darkies.  I’m not exactly sure how I feel about the scene from the show.  It was kind of long and awkward, but perhaps that was the point.  Anyway, it’s not like the writers of the show just pulled that out of thin air.  I bet they didn’t have the song written for the show. As with racist advertising (and as malevolent as), there is a plethora of  good ole “racist” music out there.  Wanna see some?

allcoonsErnest Hogan was a black man. Here are his lyrics:

“All coons look alike to me, I’ve got another beau you see, and he’s just as good to me as you, nig!”

Here’s some back story on Hogan and the song from Wikipedia:
In 1895, black entertainer Ernest Hogan published two of the earliest sheet music rags, one of which (“All Coons Look Alike to Me”) eventually sold a million copies. As fellow Black musician Tom Fletcher said, Hogan was the “first to put on paper the kind of rhythm that was being played by non-reading musicians.” While the song’s success helped introduce the country to ragtime rhythms, its use of racial slurs created a number of derogatory imitation tunes, known as “coon songs” because of their use of extremely racist and stereotypical images of blacks. In Hogan’s later years he admitted shame and a sense of “race betrayal” for the song while also expressing pride in helping bring ragtime to a larger audience.

463px-Cooncooncoon“Coon!  Coon!  Coon! I wish my color would fade.  Coon! Coon! Coon! I’d like a different shade.  Coon! Coon! Coon! Morning, night, and noon, I wish I was a white man ‘stead of a Coon!  Coon! Coon!”

No lyrics for these two, I believe:

watermelon trust
Here’s one that I thought was kind of sweet, yet sad:
“Mama, are there any angels black like me?  I’ve been as good as any little girl could be.  If I hide my face do you think they would see?  I wonder if they’ll find a place for Little black me.”

a little more racist advertising…


And here I was thinking that Bull Durham was just a baseball movie with Susan Sarandon (love, love, love) and Kevin Costner.


I guess that’s the best they could come up with.  I’ve always thought of dentyne gum as sucking, so perhaps there were no other selling points.