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