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'Sambo' II: Out of Africa


I'M NOT a good writer. If I were, people would pay more attention to the point I'm trying to reach, rather than the vehicle I use to get there.

Some years ago I wrote a column about inevitabilities and how some things happen whether we like it or not.

Like Ben Franklin, I could have used death and taxes as examples. Instead I noted the way razor-blade companies decided to make it hard to find double-edge blades even though a lot of us thought the shave they provided was superior.

Readers mailed me enough double-edge blades to last a lifetime. And I appreciated them. I use one every day. But where were the letters agreeing that too many decisions are made for us, that our choices too often are different varieties of the same thing?

Then there was the more recent column on how easy it is to be distracted from what is important, like fixing our public schools. I used a true story as a metaphor, my temptation to follow a Krispy Kreme doughnut truck while rushing home to see what had tripped the burglar alarm.

I got several letters from other doughnut lovers who miss Krispy Kremes. One reader even told me the closest place to get a glazed fix -- Alexandria, Va. But no one commented on my criticism that government had allowed itself to be distracted from problems that have gotten out of hand.

Which brings me to "Little Black Sambo." I wrote a column last Saturday that used the children's book to discuss attitudes about skin color. I said it was good that the book had been rewritten with new titles, "Sam and the Tigers" and "The Story of Little Babaji," because the old title was offensive to African Americans.

But I made a mistake. I described the book's title character as an "African child." That's what he looked like to little black children, which is what I was when I last read the book.

I got letters. I got telephone calls. How could I be so stupid as to call "Sambo" an African when the book was set in India? The story concerns the boy's encounter with tigers. Didn't I know there are no tigers in Africa?

One reader surmised that "Sambo" was a Dravidian, one of the original races of India whose skin color ranges from light brown to black. It's true, I've seen some very dark Asian Indians, but none that reminded me of "Sambo."

Another reader, who wants me to assume he is African-American, called me an "uppity nigger" who embarrasses the rest of us when I "talk like a fool" by calling "Sambo" an African child.

A nicer woman

Much nicer was a woman who called not only to set the record straight about the ancestry of "Sambo," but also to disagree with my description of the children's story as a "fairy tale." She's right. There were no fairies in it.

I'm not despondent, though. I didn't hear from them, but have second-hand knowledge of at least two people who liked the column, which simply tried to say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

"Sambo," whatever his nationality, was one of the few dark-skinned children's-book characters that black kids could read about when I was a child. He was not liked. The term "Little Black Sambo" was used the way adults used curse words. Conversely, all the heroes and beauties we read about were white.

That is changing, but not fast enough. Dark-skinned people are still too often derisively portrayed. I got a call today criticizing a new Mass Transit Administration brochure that includes a caricature of a bus driver as an overweight African-American woman.

The caricature was based on the actress who plays an MTA driver on TV commercials, but black women who saw the fliers were not amused. They don't want to be stereotyped. No one does, not even "Sambo." Anyway, MTA stopped distributing the fliers.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/28/96

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