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Variants of the name Sambo can be found in several African cultures, including Samba in Bantu; Samb and Samba in Wolof; Sambu in Mandingo; and Sambo in Hausa, Mende, and Vai. Throughout census materials and assorted other eighteenth-century documents, these names emerge as those of new world slaves. The name also has possible Hispanic antecedents: the sixteenth-century word “zambo” refers to a bowlegged or knock-kneed individual.

By the late eighteenth century, whites had begun to use the name in a generic fashion to refer to male slaves. Before long, comic associations were commonplace; childishness, sloppiness, and a propensity to mispronounce multisyllabic words were the key traits of a Sambo figure. Such characters emerged in late eighteenth-century plays and sheet music, and became mainstays of nineteenth-century minstrelsy. By the time Helen Bannerman's The Story of Little Black Sambo was published in 1898, the name was thoroughly linked with the image of an immature, fun-loving, inept, black male. The hero of her popular children's story was, in fact, from India and his cleverness is the cornerstone of the tale.

Throughout the twentieth century, African Americans have had to grapple with the tenacious Sambo image. The white public's love affair with Sambo-inspired characters undermined the efforts of African Americans to achieve equality. Black author Ralph Ellison addressed the insidiousness of the Sambo image in his masterpiece Invisible Man (1952). Nonetheless, advertisers, filmmakers, and others continued to depict black characters in the familiar Sambo fashion. In the mid-1950s, white historian Stanley Elkins caused a furor by using the Sambo label to refer to an actual personality type he believed to be prevalent during the era of slavery. But social critics continued to argue that Sambo was more representative of white wishful thinking than of any genuine personality profile evident within the African American population.

Joseph Boskin, Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester, 1986. Clarence Major, ed., Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, 1994.

–Patricia A. Turner

Subjects: Literature

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