Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 34: How did the Black Sambo memorabilia that is collected today come to be?
I have a confession to make: I collect racist memorabilia. Perhaps it is because my mother seems to have as well. She kept a very small ashtray on a table in our living room featuring a Black Sambo figurine at its center. Since neither of our parents ever smoked, I know Mom didn’t buy this object for its function; she bought it because she was intrigued, just as I was, even as a child. Why was this boy so very black — jet black, the blackest of blacks — and why was he depicted as naked? Again and again in idle moments, I would be drawn to the plight of this little black boy, frozen for all time in a racist form of in extremis, I guess one might say, with the reddest and thickest of lips, the whitest of eyes and the unutterably blackest of skin.
When it comes to the question of whether collecting those racist images is right, I often encounter two strong and diametrically opposed reactions from African Americans. Some can’t seem to amass enough examples of these “collectibles” or “memorabilia” (as we euphemistically call these hideous images today). Others think the whole lot should be assembled into one gigantic bonfire, incinerated, and the ashes buried in an impenetrable vault, or strewn over the broadest reach of the deepest ocean never to be displayed again.
It’s as if these artifacts’ complete and total obliteration could wipe the slate clean or erase the painful memory and palpably harmful effects of seeing ourselves reflected over and over through the murky mirror of the anti-black subconscious as deracinated, gluttonous, lascivious non-reflective subhuman beasts — thieves, rapists, liars — a species apart from all other human beings, dominated and ruled like other animals by our instincts and passions and not by our (sub-standard) brains.
I understand the latter reaction, so it may seem counterintuitive that I pursue a scholarly interest in what I think of as the everyday racism of the genre of American popular culture that I call “Sambo Art.” In fact, one of the components of Harvard’s extensive “Image of the Black in Western Art Archive” — composed of some 26,000 images of black people in Western art, both noble and ignoble, in both high and low art forms — is made up of these racist images, which I hope scholars will study, analyze and critique: first, to understand why and how they came into being and were used to demean and delimit our people as human beings and as citizens, and second, so that we can keep this sort of thing from being used against our people and any other subjugated people ever again, to paraphrase the defiant assertion of many Jewish people in relation to the Holocaust.
I thought about all of this a few days ago, when I walked into the Sable Images Shop near Leimert Park, bordering the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, while filming an episode of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, our six-hour African-American history series to be aired on PBS starting on Oct. 22, 2013. The lovely shop, owned and operated by an African-American woman, Gail Deculus-Johnson, is chock-full of historical examples of Sambo Art, ranging from 19th-century minstrel imagery all the way to advertisements for the Amos ‘n’ Andy television program in the early 1950s. What makes this shop different from others I have visited is a very thoughtful pamphlet that Deculus-Johnson distributes to her customers, in which she discusses why she collects and sells these items.
In response to this fascinating rhetorical question — “[Since] some items are disturbing, offensive and hard to believe, [if you collect and display them] are you creating these images yourself?” — her pamphlet answers: “No, definitely not,” since the store “contains astounding mementos reflecting true lives of people of African descent,” including all that African Americans have suffered through visual media, “depictions [that] are a testimony of life in the past,” including “the ‘good, bad, and ugly.’ ” And in response to whether “these politically incorrect depictions” are, in fact, “teaching racism,” the pamphlet answers that “displaying memorabilia as part of a home, no matter how painful it may seem, is ensuring that ‘each one teach one’ and that history must not repeat itself.” Our children, it continues, “must know where we have been to know where we are going.” In other words, the most important function of displaying and collecting this stuff is a didactic one: critique. And there is a lot here to critique.