As a young man in the late 1970s and early 1980s I spent a lot of time on the road exploring California and the other western states, initially in my 1966 Ford Mustang, and then on a bicycle after I seriously took up cycling, riding long distances all over and across America. When I wasn’t listening to lectures and books on cassette tapes on my Sony Walkman, I would while away the time by counting the number of Denny’s vs. Sambo’s restaurants along any given stretch of highway. For awhile it was close, but then suddenly Sambo’s went bankrupt and Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast became my meal of choice at any time of the day or night.
What happened to Sambo’s is emblematic of what happened across all of Western culture in the second half of the 20th century: we became aware of the power of language and logos, symbols and gestures, to affect how we see and treat others—especially those of a different race. Sambo’s became embroiled in controversy over the restaurant chain’s name. The company was founded in 1957 by Sam Battistone, Sr. and Newell Bohnett, who said that they derived the company’s name from the combined letters of their first and last names; but the duo also took advantage of the popularity of The Story of Little Black Sambo, and featured scenes from the book in menus and on the walls of their restaurants. The original story is about a dark-skinned Indian boy named Little Black Sambo who ventures out for a walk in the jungle and, in an unlikely turn of events, has his clothing expropriated by tigers. The tigers wind up quarrelling over which of them is most attractive in Sambo’s clothes and eventually they chase each other around a tree so fast that they turn into butter which Sambo’s mother, Black Mumbo, makes into pancakes. The restaurant marketers stayed true to the story in that they made the Sambo mascot Indian, but they portrayed him as a light-skinned Indian boy, whose skin got lighter still from the 50s to the 60s until he was essentially an apple-cheeked white boy in a turban. The story was also modified—gone were Black Mumbo and Sambo’s father Black Jumbo, and the unfortunate tigers no longer turned into butter but, instead, were treated to a stack of “the finest, lightest pancakes they ever ate” in exchange for returning Sambo’s clothes.
The trouble was that the Little Black Sambo featured on the cover of the U.S. edition of the book was unmistakably African and, in time, the two images—Indian and African black—morphed into a single likeness, reminiscent of so-called “darky” or blackface iconography that was popular during the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Increasingly, the word “Sambo” came to be understood as a pejorative label and a racist stereotype. There was a media feeding frenzy when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) launched a formal protest and filed lawsuits against Sambo’s to block the opening of new restaurants in several Northeastern states. The corporate suits at Sambo’s headquarters scrambled to explain, rationalize, and then respond by changing the names of some of the restaurants in those parts of the country where it was found offensive, to such innocuous titles as Jolly Tiger, No Place Like Sam’s, Season’s Friendly Eating, and even just Sam’s. As Nan Ellison, president of the Brockton, Mass., NAACP, said: “I think I can go to Sam’s to eat without feeling degraded. I could not feel comfortable at Sambo’s when I reflected on the sacrifices made by demonstrators at sit-ins during the 1960s.” But it was all to no avail. By 1982 all but one of the 1,117 Sambo’s restaurants in 47 states had closed their doors and the corporation filed for bankruptcy.