Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Dismantling Americana: Sambo, Shirley Graham, and African Nationalism Jodi Van der Horn-Gibson Molloy College

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Dismantling Americana: Sambo, Shirley Graham, and African Nationalism Jodi Van der Horn-Gibson Molloy College

Article excerpt

Sambo was an extraordinary type of social control, at once extremely subtle, devious, and encompassing. To exercise a high degree of control meant also to be able to manipulate the full range of humor; to create, ultimately, an insidious type of buffoon. To make the black male into an object of laughter, was to strip him of masculinity, dignity, and self-possession. Sambo was, then, an illustration of humor as a device of oppression, and one of the most potent in American popular culture.

-Joseph Boskin,

Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester

In 1899, Helen Bannerman published a small, colorful book for children called Little Black Sambo. Meant for the hands of children to hold, this small book and its title character have created a more than century-long controversy. More so than the story itself, her illustrations reflect an ideology of "blackness" mass-marketed in American popular culture through films, stories, pictures, postcards, figurines, and cookie jars. While the story remains popular to this day, its debated pictures can be seen to fall in the category of "visual terrorism" - a term borrowed by Tavia Nyong'o from Robin Chandler to describe "black Americana" or, in other words, "racist kitsch" (371-391). This memorabilia from our not so distant racist past can be purchased in antique stores, catalogs, and online auction sites everywhere. And when looking at "black Americana," the resemblance between the kitsch and the illustrations in Sambo is unmistakable.

In 1898, when Helen Bannerman was writing Little Black Sambo, cultural Darwinism was reaching its pinnacle, and popular culture of that time reflected the inaccurate and demeaning - albeit naturalized - stereotypes of "other." These distorted figures - white visions of Said's "Orientalized other" and products of the established power structure - were being drawn. With the growing popularity of theatre and other types of performances, these myths were playing out as embodied truths. The filtering system of white, Western consciousness defined and structured the popular performance style of "blackness" as the nineteenth century minstrel-tradition of blackface and buffoonery.

The popular performance style of "blackness," based in the minstrel-tradition of blackface and buffoonery, held fixed oppressive images of "other." Marcus Garvey's political and social cries for "Back-to-Africa" helped many black Americans shape ideological and aesthetic responses which included African nationalist art and politics as a foundation for self-defined African-American philosophical and sociological identification. W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, purported that art should be seen as a powerful tool - a socially moving force.

In 1938, Shirley Graham Du Bois, with the Chicago Negro Unit's production of Little Black Sambo, placed this controversial icon against traditional African motifs. Here, I offer, she confronted and reappropriated the racist imagery through what David Krasner has described as the "complex, and often contradictory, relationship between performance and representation" (9). Through her production, Graham added to the deconstruction of the minstrel notion of "blackness" in order to reconstruct an image based on a sense of African nationalist consciousness and identification. Even though she was criticized, Graham's focus on fostering a self-defined identity and consciousness in the diaspora cannot be mistaken in this production, and her other work both on and offstage. And while it must be recognized that there were then and remain today difficulties and contradictions within the production - for example the text itself and its employment of the demeaning name "Sambo" - Graham's production remains complex and deeply layered in her rendering of an African nationalistic perspective.

Graham's Little Black Sambo lives within and between the ironic constraints of the "free, adult, uncensored" climate of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). …

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