It’s common in Ireland to see a sign saying ‘soup and sambo offer’ or ‘tea and sambo’. In Ireland this doesn’t raise an eyebrow but for people from other countries it is a really strange thing to see. The word ‘sambo’ is an old – fashioned racist term that in most other countries is completely unacceptable to use. There are many stories of Irish people asking for a sambo in London and being looked at with complete confusion. When you stop and think about it, it is very strange that a racist term, with its roots in transatlantic slavery, is now used to describe sandwiches. So, how did this happen, and in this day and age is it still ok to refer to sandwiches as sambos or should we reconsider?
Where Does The Word Come From?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary Sambo is a noun with two meanings. The first being an offensive way to describe a black person. The second being historical: a person of mixed race, especially of black and Indian, or black and European heritage. The word emerged in the early eighteenth century as a term of derision.
In 1980 Joseph Boskin, a professor of history and Afro-American studies at Boston University, released the book SAMBO: The Rise & Demise of an American Jester, which examined the history and meaning behind the word. The fact that it merited such a detailed study gives an indication as to its prevalence in society. He traces the etymology thus:
‘For the Hausa of western Africa it was a name of dignity, meaning ”name of a spirit” and ”second son in the family”; but in the language of the Mende, also of western Africa, it was a verb meaning ”to disgrace” or ”to be shameful.” English slave traders probably also adopted ”Sambo” as a form of the Hispanic slavers’ insulting term ”zambo,” meaning ”of mixed blood,” ”bow-legged” or ”monkey.”’
From this Boskin determines that Sambo was considered a jester, expected to perform with a wide grin, a dance and always eager to please.
The Story of Little Black Sambo was written by Helen Bannerman and published in 1899. The fourth book in a series known as Dumpy Books For Children, it became a children’s favourite for decades and was quickly followed by a range of children’s toys, including a dart gun target. The book’s artwork gives some insight into the depiction of black people and the negative stereotypes that were perpetuated by the use of this word and the associated images.
The Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum would later breakdown the depiction of the Sambo character, observing that he is ‘a perpetual child, not capable of living as an independent adult.’
‘Sambo was portrayed as a loyal and contented servant. Indeed, Sambo was offered as a defence for slavery and segregation. How bad could these institutions have been, asked the racialists, if blacks were contented, even happy, being servants? … Sambo was identified with older, docile blacks who accepted Jim Crow laws and etiquette.’
Sambo also popped up in popular adult fiction from the Nineteenth Century. In William M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, it is given as a name for an Indian servant (not his real name of course, that had been taken from him) and similarly it was the name given to an overseer in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It became a stereotypical name for African-Americans. It is was another way of stripping away a person’s name and with it their identity.
Since the Civil Rights period, the word has become less common. However its influence continues. For example, Jay Z referenced the history of offensive racist cartoons and poor representations of black entertainers in his video for the remarkable ‘The Story of OJ’.
‘The Story of OJ’ inverts the typical representation of Sambo in advertising and media in an attempt to strip away the falsehoods. As the song goes on the discuss how black entertainers have been held down over time the lyrics are matched with images informed by the long history of negative stereotyping and advertising images.
Elsewhere, earlier this year a restaurant in Santa Barbara, LA, changed its name from Sambo’s to Chad’s after a petition was set up demanding the owners consider the negative associations of the word and choose a more welcoming name that is not racially insensitive. The chain once had 1,100 restaurants but it is believed that the Santa Barbara one was the last with that name.
So how does it end up being a word for sandwiches?
This one is a lot harder to identify. It is used in both Ireland and Australia although no one knows which country it originated in. Although every Irish person I spoke to for this article was used to hearing the word no one knew where they had first heard it or how it had become associated with sandwiches, or indeed how a word that is considered racist and deeply insulting elsewhere, has somehow avoided that association in this country. This is particularly interesting when one considers how many more people have migrated to or travelled to Ireland in recent years.
Questions such as this are a bit of a hot topic at the moment. In the UK MPs and BBC employees are being encouraged to undertake racial bias training in order to raise their awareness of issues relating to race and the words and actions that can be considered inappropriate or harmful. At a recent BBC training session for sports commentators, a list of words and phrases which should be avoided was issued. This included phrases such as ‘cakewalk’, ‘sold down the river’ and ‘uppity’. These words and phrases that are used in everyday parlance have a surprising history. For example, ‘sold down the river’ dates back to the Nineteenth Century when slaves were literally sold down the river. They would be sent further south to even more brutal plantations. The threat present in this phrase still stands out today. It also highlights that the language we use sometimes has its root in the inequality and cruelty of racism and slavery.
So, when we become aware of a word or phrases unpleasant history, can we continue to use it in casual conversation? Some British MPs are refusing to take part in these seminars and training sessions and it looks set to become one of the new lines in the left right culture war that rages in the British media.
The term fell out of common usage over the Twentieth Century and the Civil Rights movement helped to eradicate the image. It is rarely heard today but is still recognisable to many, especially in America. Some might argue that in Ireland it is harmless and has no intention to cause upset; that there do not seem to have been many people complaining about this. It is just one of those cultural oddities that each country has. On the other hand, tourism is big business in Ireland (pandemic excepted) and it must look odd to the thousands that visit the Guinness Storehouse each year and see a tea and sambo offer. Similarly, as the demographic makeup of Ireland has changed is it still ok to use this word so casually.