July 06, 2008

Racist Sambo's Restaurant Still Exists?!

During a recent meetup with fellow local bloggers, I learned that there's still a Sambo's restaurant in Santa Barbara, California. That really threw me for a loop around the tree.

Many of us vaguely remember the story of Little Black Sambo. The version I remember was: Black kid chases tiger around tree, tiger turns into pancake batter, kid eats pancakes. Then I recall hearing that the Sambo story turned into a racial flashpoint, and the name "Sambo" was subsequently banned from the vernacular and, especially, from an eponymous restaurant chain.

That's close, but not quite accurate. First, "Little Black Sambo," published in 1899, was written by a Scottish woman living in India, and the Sambo of the story is Indian, not Black (as in African or African-American). Second, according to Wikipedia, "[t]he little boy has to give his colorful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella to four tigers so they will not eat him. Sambo recovers the clothes when the jealous, conceited tigers chase each other around a tree until they are reduced to a pool of delicious melted butter." Then I think the pancakes part was accurate. The story is an allegory about pride or something.

Somewhere along the way, the term "Sambo" became a racial slur. Then, in the late 1950s, Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett started a restaurant chain, and thought they would be clever by combining their names to call it Sambo's. Then they decided to be even more clever by using the themes and characters of the book to decorate their restaurants.

With the help of public pressure and even some lawsuits, the owners of Sambo's restaurants or their heirs eventually got a clue and changed the name. Many of the restaurants became "Sam's." This is similar to the whitewashing of the "Coon Chicken" corporate name that is uncovered in the movie "Ghost World," and which, until now, I (and most people who have seen "Ghost World," I'm sure) thought was purely fictitious.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was told that the original Sambo's restaurant, in Santa Barbara, California, is still called Sambo's! Just as bizarre is the restaurant's continued use of the Sambo and tiger characters from the book. Note, however, that in the logo that pops up when you view the Sambo's restaurant website, Sambo's skin has been lightened.

So I guess a few things have evolved since 1899. Racism has diminished in the United States to the point where some restaurants have to change their names. Men who are half African and half White win the Presidential nomination of a major political party. Stories of dark-skinned boys take on or are recognized as having racist overtones, and are no longer acceptable. But apparently, we get to keep some reminders of our racist past, as long as those reminders are, literally, toned down.

Photo from veganmomma.com

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At 9:16 AM, Blogger Barbara said...

That used to be one of my favorite books as a child. I loved the tigers running around the tree turning into a pool of butter. That was before I knew what racism was.

At 12:19 PM, Blogger Ghetufool said...

it should be 'sambhu'

but then british coudn't pronounce indian names, leave alone write them in english.

so sambhu became sambo. chattopadhay became chatterjee, bandyopadhay became banerjee, gangopadhay became ganguly.

kolkata became calcutta, dilli became delhi, mumbai became bombay and worse, chennai became madras (god knows why).

but i don't blame them at all. largely because of them, i could read your blog now in your language and lo ... can comment too.

At 6:12 PM, Blogger media concepts said...

ghetufool, thanks for the information. I'm glad that you are able to communicate with us on the blog, but colonialism still seems like a hefty price to pay for a common language.

At 1:11 AM, Blogger Ghetufool said...

it is, in some way.

but if you come to india, you will realise that we could easily have been 26 countries. each state is different from the other.

be it language, food, culture, everything.

it's too crude if we forgive the colonists, but you know not everything can be solely bad. some god comes in between. i think the unification of these states made the difference.

having said that, i am pretty sure, all the states even then, were bind by one common theme. this theme is very hard to describe. it's the feeling of indianism. 'unity among diversity' as philosophers call it.

i don't know what would have been the outcome if british were not here.

At 2:20 PM, Blogger Scott said...

If you think the fact that "Sambo's" still exists is a shocker, you should check out "Tar Baby's" restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

At 1:33 AM, Blogger Raymond said...

hmmm....Sounds like another case of white guilt to me. Give me a break dude. ITS A FUCKING RESTAURANT, THATS IT, NOTHING MORE NOTHING LESS!!!! You sit here and talk about it as if it is the world headquarters of the KKK. People like you just need to relax and quit getting your panties in a bunch everytime you see or hear something that offends you. NOBODY has the right to not be offended.

At 3:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not hard to pick the racist out of the bunch is it? There are always people like Raymond who are so saturated with racist imagery, racist language, and simply offensive conduct, that they think it's no big deal. I grew up in Louisville, KY (in the 80's)and had the word Sambo and other derogatory terms yelled at me quite often. I tell you what, it hurt every time and brought fear every time. It was often followed by a bottle or a rock being thrown at us, and threats of lynching etc. So, no we can't 'relax' and people should 'get their panties in a bunch' when crap like this exist. There will always be Raymonds in this world, and there will always be a need to fight them. Sambo's, Tar Baby's, and Coons Chicken are/were popular establishments in this country, and Raymond thinks they are just "FUCKING RESTAURANTS?" Our work is never done.

At 1:38 AM, Blogger Bob said...

Sambo's was NEVER racist towards any skin tone. The only racist comments have come from people who think, that Sambo's was racist.

Now your wondering how I know?? I worked for Sambo's 1971-1981. There was never a better company to work for. They didn't care what color you were.

By the way, the original Sambo's was never incorporated into the Sambo's chain.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Earl said...

Sambo's was a great place to eat when I was a kid and we never thought of it a bit racist. Sambo was a little emblem of the restaurant Chain that just like Ronald Mc Donald And Wendy is today It is only racist if you want it to be. As a symbol of the restaurant he was a hard working little boy that chased the tiger around the palm tree. I am Irish and don't yell raciest every time is a leprechaun symbol.

At 12:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the "minority" here. I grew up in a town that had a Sambo's. While the original Santa Barbara restaurant has lightened up the skin of the title character, the original color was still not offensive. Let's not forget: this was an INDIAN boy. Not a black boy.

I grew up going to this restaurant, coloring in the coloring books and playing with the oh-so-cheesy toys offered to kids during the dining experience. My hometown was more progressive and integrated than the rest of the country was at the time.

I had black classmates. Black people lived in every part of town and not just "certain" neighborhoods. My one and only babysitter was a young black woman named Jeannie who was the daughter of my parents' friends (she gave me her Supremes LP when I cried because she announced she was going to college). My parents and I attended a predominantly black church (yes, we were holy rollers!).

I knew what racism was. Most of us did. We saw it broadcast nationally on an almost daily basis.

The black citizens of the city dined at the local Sambo's too. There was never a question in any of our minds about racism. It was a family restaurant with a cute theme. Black or white, everyone in our town was upset when the lawsuit forced it's shutdown.

You can sit there and try to lay a guilt trip if you want, but this issue was never about racism, because the restaurants weren't about racism. You yourself admitted in the post that the name came about as a result of combining the two owners' names. This was about the out-of-control militancy of politcal correctness in this country.

There was a reality show last year that I think emphasizes this perfectly. Several people were all vying for a job as P-Diddy's personal assistant. The finalists were told to bring some things from home that said something about their personality.

One of the candidates brought a sock monkey. Diddy and the two other men on the panel (also black) took one look at the toy and flew off the handle. None of them actually knew what it was, so they immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was a "Sambo" doll.

Nothing the applicant said was good enough to quell their "moral outrage." They ranted for almost a full 5 minutes over a toy that has been in existence since the mid 1800s which has no ties to racism whatsoever.

This is the state of race-relations in America today. Anybody can make any outrageous claim they want and mountains will move and heads will roll because a bunch of white people like you feel guilty for something you had nothing to do with.

I am one-quarter Comanche. I am Jewish. I am also gay. And I am tired of this country's ever-thinning skin and warped sense of racial justice. Handing the country over on a silver platter doesn't erase past injustices -- it just creates future ones.

Thanks for the opportunity to speak my mind.

At 3:01 AM, Blogger media concepts said...

I appreciate the comments and the range of views, which are still coming in so long after the post was written. However, some readers misinterpreted the post. The point wasn't that the original or later owners of Sambo's restaurants were or are racists. It's that they were (are) clueless. Like it or not, the term "Sambo" evolved into a racist shorthand slur for "blacks" (and many European colonialists called Indians and anyone else who wasn't lily white "black") MANY DECADES AGO. I'll list just a few examples, which continue to this day. There are many, many more.






That is why I say that, whatever innocent intentions Sam and Bo had at the beginning, it's unbelievably insensitive at best to perpetuate this name today.

At 5:16 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

With the exception of Raymond, there were many good points made here. If the word Sambo’s is derogatory to a specific cultural or minority group then it has to change. The difficult part of racism today is I am also seeing a reversal of hatred to some degree. This means we still have not learned from our past, and historically humanity is still repeating the same history over and over. Dr. Martin Luther King said it best when he spoke the words, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Unfortunately none of us can change history or else most of us would quash the stupidity that we still deal with today, but instead we should focus more on the content of someone’s character than the pigment of their skin. Hold your disdain for the actions of the person not the racial or ethnic origin of that person, or else all of us become guilty for allowing racism to continue.


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