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Restaurant Revisionism - The Tiger Won

When I was growing up in the Pacific Northwest, there was a chain of family restaurants (about the same level as Denny's) called Sambo's. They were based on the story "Little Black Sambo" about an African boy who tangled with a tiger (I forget how it happened), and outsmarted him. He tricked the tiger into running around and around a tree so many times that the tiger melted down into butter, which Little Black Sambo put on his pancakes.

Sometime in the early 1980's the chain was shut down due to protests and boycotting because of the supposedly offensive story. Personally I never understood it. It's been a long time, so I may be forgetting an important detail or two, but the story never seemed offensive to me. Sambo was clever, did not speak in pidgin, and triumphed over the tiger.

Last night, for reasons too convoluted to go into here, oakmouse and I ended up talking about tigers melting into butter and Sambo's restaurants. As far as we both knew, the chain was defunct.

Today, in Lincoln City, Oregon, I found a Sambo's restaurant -- but if it's a leftover from the old chain, they survived by eliminating Sambo himself. The restaurant I was in was a celebration of tigers. There were tigers on the menu, tigers for sale in various forms in kitschy gift shop, tigers painted on the walls. Unless someone knew the old story, they would have no clue as to why the restaurant was called Sambo's at all.

But I had to laugh -- actually, I had to use my cameraphone to take a picture of the menu and email it to oakmouse -- given the weird synchronicity of the conversation and finding the restaurant.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 26th, 2009 04:05 am (UTC)
That's so cool. :)
Jun. 26th, 2009 04:26 am (UTC)
You know, the one in Bellingham in the early 80s was like that too. Tigers; no Sambo. It was still basically a pancake house, though, and they served the pancakes with a small pitcher of melted butter. *g*
Jun. 26th, 2009 04:32 am (UTC)
Ahhhh. My mother and brother are convinced that when The Jungle Book was originally released as a movie, the boy's name was little Black Sambo. But I haven't seen any evidence of that. They must be remembering this story.
Jun. 26th, 2009 05:12 am (UTC)
They must be remembering this story.

I think so!

Since Mowgli's name *is* "Mowgli" in Kipling's The Jungle Books, it wouldn't make sense to call him Sambo in the movie when all the other names were Kipling's. . .
Jun. 26th, 2009 05:21 am (UTC)
We had a Sambo's in Oak Harbor into the early 80s, and there were only the tiger references. It was a fun place to eat, and I remember having a little stuffed tiger that had a Sambo's shirt on that came with a basketball that velcro'ed to its paw. Then they became Denny's; then that place became Godfather's Pizza for the longest time; and now it's a smoking hole in the ground, and was eventually paved over for the Safeway gas station.

But, here's the thing: "Sambo" was used by some people as a kind of minor racist slur, if not as a general (often negative) ethnic stereotype.

Susan B. Anthony, for example, said in relation to voting rights for women, but not for black or Irish men, "We want Bridget and Dinah to vote, not Patrick and Sambo." While she didn't say "Paddy," and that term can be used in both positive and negative ways, still, the idea that one can broad-brush an entire gendered ethnicity in that way with one word would have been something in some people's minds, I think, and thus a move to more PC-terminology was probably a good thing. Hardly anyone remembers the place these days, but even amongst those who do, I've witnessed a shyness of even saying the name of it, as if it is bad to say that as it is to say "the 'n-' word"...
Jun. 26th, 2009 07:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the info. I had not realized that "Sambo" had been a racial slur. The only time I've ever seen the name/term was in connection with the restaurant or that particular story.
Jun. 26th, 2009 06:54 am (UTC)
Little Black Sambo -- which we had in a Little Golden Book -- was about a child in southern India. Nevertheless, the story, or its illustrations, came to represent some nasty stereotypes. Recently several authors have renamed the child and done illustrations that aren't offensive, and the books have done well.
Jun. 26th, 2009 07:06 pm (UTC)

I think I had the Little Golden Book too. . .

The illustration in the Wikipedia article is not one I remember!

I was also glad to see the mention of the mention of Sambo in the Fables comic series. I recognized the character (after a bit) and was delighted that he had been included.

Edited at 2009-06-26 07:08 pm (UTC)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )


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