Dismantling Americana:
Sambo, Shirley Graham, and African Nationalism

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2008, Volume 7, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2008/van_der_horn_gibson.htm

 

Jodi Van Der Horn-Gibson
Molloy College


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). I suggest that due largely to its position in the “children’s theatre” genre, and the inclusion of the racist epithet “Sambo,” the production was not and is not seen as social commentary or a call for agitation. Bannerman’s story was then and remains today complex and problematic. During and immediately after the premiere, Graham was criticized by some African Americans and other progressives as producing “this kind” of entertainment while many of the white critics and historians then and now saw/see it as “fun” – Hallie Flanagan, the Director of the Federal Theatre Project, herself praised the production.

Artists were writing and reacting to social ills and the system that supported oppression by breaking away from mainstream forms and values. Larry Neal in “Into Nationalism, Out of Parochialism” writes about the “ideology of blackness” that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance due partly from the need for black Americans to “find some space…to move” away from the imposed selves defined by the dominant culture. He also points to Richard Wright’s 1937 essay, “The Blueprint for Negro Writing,” in which Wright calls for the combination of a “nationalistic identity with thirties leftism.” Neal advocates this essay as the beginning of a “black cultural ideology” (295). He writes:

The ideology of blackness...sprang out of American blacks’ legitimate need to develop a philosophical orientation which would let them find some space within themselves to move, a private space that set them apart from whites, from the European value system. It was also a reaction to a racist language and imagery that had made blackness a thing of evil. (296)

Shirley Graham Du Bois, a student of W.E.B Du Bois who later became his wife, grappled with racism and structures of social power and identification with strong connection to Africa in her writing. She was born Lola (Lola Bell) Shirley Graham in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1896. Her father, the Reverend David Graham, was an African Methodist Episcopalian Minister and her mother, Etta Bell Graham, raised Shirley and her siblings (Horne 38). While a student at Oberlin College, her opera Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro was performed in the Cleveland Stadium during the “Theatre of Nations” program. Tom-Tom was the first opera by an African American woman to be produced, and it was fully produced with an all-black cast. This is a significant moment not only historically, but also gives early indication of Graham’s African aesthetic. Graham earned her master’s degree with her thesis “The Survival of Africanism in Modern Music” (Brown-Guillory 80). Probably influenced by Du Bois’ 1913 pageant The Star of Ethiopia, Tom-Tom was a living history of African slaves in America. Graham’s story begins in Africa and follows a community of people from an African village through the violence of a Garvey-like revolution set in the Harlem of the 1920s. She presents a community split over listening to the “VooDoo Man" who wants the people to listen to the tom-toms and follow his vision of a strong African nation, and the “Real Estate Man” who urges people to stay in America, but eventually “buys into” the back-to-Africa movement.

John Cullen Greusser states, “Graham did not write traditional recitative of European opera. She employed the long chant of early African American preachers” (qtd. in Hill and Hatch 322). Graham also drew on what she termed “authentic” African rhythms from people she met in Martinique and Senegal while studying in France, as well as African themes and rhythms over 500 years old that were collected by her uncle, father, and brother, all of whom lived and worked in Liberia and Ghana for several years. She incorporated those rhythms into her Federal Theatre production, but also used them in her opera. The show opens and closes to the sound of the drum with the “VooDoo Man” dying to the sound of silence as he is no longer able to beat the tom-tom. He laments his failure as one that will reverberate throughout all people and time – the death of nation.

VooDoo Man: It doesn’t matter now, my boy. I’ve failed. I’ve failed. Always, through the ages I have failed…Now even my tom-tom will be silent.

The boy picks up the stick and says:

Boy: No! Black man, No! Your tom-tom shall be heard. (He strikes a mighty blow upon the tom-tom.) Who will go with me/ Not to distant lands/ But here, beating the tom-tom/ We’ll find kingdoms unknown. (Graham, Tom-Tom 285)

He continues striking the tom-tom, as the song sweeps over the crowd. Two men lift up the drum as the boy continues beating it.

Boy: Talk about a child that’s seeking for a Kingdom/ Here is one, here is one./ Talk about a child that’s seeking for a Kingdom,/ Here is one, here is one.

Chorus: My Lord, what a morning,/ My Lord, what a morning,/ When the sun begins to shine/ Seeking for a Kingdom, seeking for a Kingdom. (Graham, Tom-Tom 285-286)

The beating of the drum leads the crowd toward the rising sun as the “VooDoo Man” smiles.

For Graham, the importance of African music in the diaspora as connection to ancestral memories and energy is evidenced here in Tom-Tom, but also through her study of music at Oberlin, and in her incorporation of African music in Little Black Sambo. Paul Carter Harrison writes of the “essential foundation of the aesthetic objectives of African American inventions….” and that “as Africans in the New World, black performing artists are faced with the daunting challenge of how to sing the liberating songs of our ancestors in a hostile, alien land” (Harrison 316). Graham suggests through her themes, dialogue, and music that black Americans will experience a “liberating effect” by embracing “ancient African customs” (Schmalenberger 7).

Gerald Horne writes that for her accomplishments, she should be considered one of the leading black female intellectuals “of this or any country” (1). Instead, her life and accomplishments have been ignored in part because of her famous husband and also because of her controversial political choices and allies. She was a woman of many talents who was a pioneer in the civil rights movement in the United States to lift “black men and women out of obscurity” (1). Kathy Perkins states:

The many contributions of Shirley Graham have on the whole been neglected in the annals of American theatre history. Graham was one of the few black women, prior to the 1950s, to actively pursue a career in professional theatre as a playwright, composer, designer, and director. The fact that only one play and one musical composition by her have been published to date testifies to the neglect that her work suffers. (Perkins 209)

While not the first black artist to depict a positive and powerful spirit in the black community, Graham, in Tom-Tom, along with many of her other plays and novels, looks at structures of social power and ways in which those structures force identification. Graham, along with many other black artists, was writing, directing, and performing unyielding accounts of racial discrimination and social injustice from her early work as a student through her tenure with the Federal Theatre Project. Graham’s entry into the Negro Unit of the Chicago Federal Theatre Project came at a crucial point for the Unit. This Unit, unlike the New York or Boston Units, had no blacks in administrative or artistic control and Graham was a highly qualified candidate to use her leadership and artistic vision to help raise the struggling Unit to national recognition.

Graham was immediately confronted with a battle of artistic control over Theodore Ward’s The Big White Fog. This production raised the debate over the representation of race, who should interpret it, and how it gets interpreted. In some accounts, Graham has been portrayed as resentful that she did not get to direct the show and that a white woman, Kay Ewing, did. Perhaps Graham's discontent was related more to the issue previously mentioned: the disparity between the interpretations of a black experience by white artists instead of that same experience by a black artist, and the belief that a person with a closer understanding of the oppression and experiences should direct the show. Black members of the audience with whom Graham and others of the CNU spoke may have been made uncomfortable be the presence of pro-Garvey-ism on stage, but perhaps they were probably more uncomfortable “trusting the stage interpretations of such images to the white artists and administrative structure of the Chicago FTP” (Vactor 110). The irony and importance of this situation cannot be overlooked: in the Federal Theatre Project, having black artists direct other black artists had been a pressing issue from its inception. Here was a very capable black female artist willing to direct what could be a powerful comment on racism and race relations in the United States, but she was not allowed to direct the production. Instead a white, middle-class woman was given the job. This fact reveals the larger picture of racial discrimination rampant in the Federal Theatre Project, as well as the reality that despite Flanagan’s attempts at a free and uncensored space, institutionalized racial barriers existed in multiple forms that prevented black artists from drawing portraits of “blackness.”

 

Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of You?

-Frantz Fanon,
Black Skin, White Masks

 

Little Black Sambo and the Federal Theatre Project

Adapted from Charlotte Chorpenning’s version of the Bannerman text, Graham’s show ran off and on at the Great Northern Theatre from August 29, 1938, through the closing of the FTP, June 30, 1939. The cast was made up of black actors, and Graham envisioned the show in “traditional” African motif. In her director’s notes, Graham described her concept for it as a whimsical, poetic, colorful “Never-never-Land” where animals “spoke our language with ease and naturalness, a land where imagination did away with physical barriers and anything might happen” (Graham Production Notes). With her own original music, she drew on her knowledge of African beats and percussions to create intense rhythms in a minor melodic key (Graham Production Notes). The set, costume, lighting, and music designs were done so as to harmonize with one another. In a conscious effort on her part she wanted all of these theatrical elements to introduce the mysticism of Africa and to develop “a harmony and oneness throughout the entire production” (Graham Production Notes).

In Bannerman’s original edition, the setting reads as India. The story talks of “ghi,” which is clarified butter used in India for food and religious rituals; there is also the presence of tigers and a jungle setting. Her illustrations, however, show Sambo, Mumbo, and Jumbo as stereotypical caricatures of black Americans: the “Picanniny,” the “Mammy,” and the “Coon.” Productions of Little Black Sambo by other FTP Negro Units maintained the Southern nineteenth century mythologized plantation “negro” through keeping the story in the traditional mode of blackface minstrelsy. Graham moved the setting away from the ambiguous and confusing locale of Bannerman’s India/Africa illustrations. Vanita Vactor discusses Graham’s production:

Although the African-American FTP unit in Newark, NJ, would later question the play’s title, there is no documentation that supports any argument for a change in the title in Chicago. Photographs from the production illustrate that Graham directed Little Black Sambo without the trapping of minstrelsy associated with photographs of other Federal Theatre productions which showed actors and puppets in black-face make-up and stereotypical African American facial features. (148-149)

Graham’s setting, costumes, lights, and music were done with imaginative color. The same backdrop was used for all scenes and was a colorful rendering of a jungle with “greens predominating, and brilliant suggestions of jungle flowers” (Graham Production Notes). The costumes, designed by Clive Rickabaugh were based on traditional African garments. Mumbo had an African-style headdress and dress; Mumbo wore a dashiki-style jacket and pants. The setting changed slightly with the addition of a small hut for the family’s home, and the lights added shifts of scenes and mood. The entire show, however, was done in brilliant color as Graham wanted to stress the “Negro character of the play by the play of brilliant colors, decided use of percussion, intensity of rhythms and in a definite minor melodic line of the music” (Graham Production Notes). Leslie Frost writes that the Chicago production "transforms African-American stereotypes of a singing, childlike people into a complex portrayal of an artistic personality located in a family with traditional American values....Graham’s interpretation, retains the bright juxtaposition of color" (176).

There are four scripts in the Chorpenning playscript file in the Library of Congress archives: one from the Miami project, which was a puppet production by Molka Reich; two versions by Robert Warfield done by the Newark unit; and a marionette version by Edwine N. Mitchell for the Junior League. The Reich text begins with what one would expect from a traditional “Mammy” in Mumbo – the use of malapropisms and exaggerated nonsensical expressions. Sambo also exhibits the chief stereotyped characteristics of the wild, half naked, carefree “picanniny.”

MUMBO. Where is that pestiferous child? Sambo? Sambo. Where is you at?

SAMBO. Here I is, Mumbo.

MUMBO. Come in here this instant, Where you been chile? Come yere to yo’ mammy.

SAMBO. Oh, Mumbo. I was havin’ do bestest time. I was swimmin’ all de mornin’, in de ribber.

MUMBO. Ain’t I been told you not to go swimmin’ in dat ribber? You want to be et up by dem crocodiles? (Reich 4)

The Warfield scripts vary only slightly from one another, but within the texts themselves, the shift in speech patterns is quite significant. In one script, Warfield writes:

MUMBO. Jumbo! Jumbo! Look-a-heah and see ef’n dis coat looks fitten to wear. I ain’t made anything so litty bit as dis heah coat in all my likfe befo’. That Sambo looks so scandalous in his lil’ white shirt, I ‘loed I betah make him some shore ‘nuff clothes. What he wearin’ right now don’t come furder dan his waist. (NEGROS SONG, SINGING OFF STAGE). (Warfield 1)

The same moment in the second script reads:

MUMBO. Jumbo!/ Jumbo-looka heah and see if this coat looks fit’n to wear. That Sambo looks so bad in his little gingham skirt/ I’lowed I’d better make him some sho-nuf clothes. (1)

It is unclear why the dialogue was shortened and the playwright used fewer dialectic substitutions in the second script than he did in the first. These moments in the playscripts, however, reflect the minstrel-based style of performing blackness pervasive in Federal Theatre scripts and productions for young people. But the importance of looking at these scripts centers around comparing them to the Chicago script as well as all aspects of Graham’s production.

Chorpenning’s script does not adhere to stereotypical dialect and speech patterns. Graham’s adaptation steered it even further away from portraying Africa as a primitive, exotic land to portray the strength and beauty of African culture, and Graham’s strong sense of connection and pride in her racial heritage which had been nurtured in her since she was a child. Compare the earlier dialogue with that of the Chicago script:

MUMBO. Sambo!

SAMBO. Yes, Mother. I’m working.

Sambo begins to sing.

SAMBO. I hear the wind./ It says it is going away./ I am going, too./ We go, go, go./ Through the cocoanut trees./ Where the monkeys are./ Where the elephants are./ Where the tigers are./ I leap on the back of an elephant./ We ride, ride, ride./ Plop, plop, plop./ To the end of the work./ Then we ride without ground./ Without trees,/ Only the wind./ Only on the water./ Only in a dim place. (Chorpenning 1)

Upon asking Mumbo whether or not she liked his song, Mumbo displays her practicality and reminds Sambo that the reason she sent Jumbo to the bazaar was to buy what they needed to make food for dinner. She tells him, “I can’t make pancakes out of a song" (Chorpenning 2). Chorpenning draws a little boy with a big imagination who is not afraid of animals and enjoys feeling the wind in him and singing songs for his mother and father.

This family is emblematic of a loving two-parent home, and she rewrote the Bannerman story in lovely prose. Other than the offensive names, the story is fun and filled with poetry, music, and interesting characters, and it is clear that this is a strong family unit, where Mumbo and Jumbo both love their child very much. At one point in the story, Sambo is presumed lost, and she and Jumbo both are distraught over not finding him. The fear that he may have been hurt or worse is too much for them to process as they break down weeping over the presumed loss of their child.

MUMBO. The drum beats./ My heart beats./ When will my child come home?/ I wait, I wait,/ My breath comes fast,/ I wait, wait, wait/ When will my child come home?/ When will he come home, Oh drum?/ When will my child come home?

Further into the song she cries:

MUMBO. In vain I wait to hear the beat/ Of his dancing feet/ And the tinkling sound along the ground/ Of the bells upon his purple shoes,/ Of his purple and crimson shoes. (Chorpenning 10)

Graham’s connection here to family is significant as she herself was divorced from her first husband, and her sons spent much of their time away as she was educating herself and trying to support them. The poignancy of Graham’s sorrow at being separated from her children can be felt in the fear and mourning of Mumbo and Jumbo as they fear their child is lost to them. This theme also resonates within the larger African diaspora as slave owners would often split families up, which, as a result, created greater dependency on the larger community to care for one another – which brings me to Malinke.

The subplot of Malinke, the monkey that everyone teases and no one likes who becomes Sambo’s friend, adds depth to the play as well as richer possibility for interpretation. Sambo, the child of color, usually the one faced with ridicule, is presented as having the power and agency to fight against not only the “bullies” who hurt Malinke, but who also threaten Sambo and eventually would threaten his family. In the minstrelized scripts, this sub-plot does not appear. But here, Sambo and Malinke triumph over the tigers, and even other monkeys jealous of Sambo. He returns home having found all of the ingredients for the pancakes except the butter. Additionally, Frost points out that with this subplot addition, Graham’s production “overturns the pejorative connection between monkeys and men that underlies so much of racist caricature” (172).

Little, in fact, is written about Chicago's production of Little Black Sambo. Perkins credits this production with raising the defunct Chicago unit to "national recognition and importance" (210) while others merely mention that the show was done. In my research, I have found few discussions of this production, and those that do exist are in the context of vilifying it. Even fewer unpack the production of it, its social relevance, or how Graham’s adaptation was vastly different from other Negro Units doing the same show. Like Graham herself, when the show is mentioned, critics castigate it, though the criticism is usually related to the racial issues surrounding the text, not Graham’s production itself. Leslie Frost’s dissertation, “Dreaming America: Politics and Childhood on the Federal Theatre Project Stage,” dedicates an entire chapter to a discussion of several productions of Little Black Sambo, providing a historical context for the production and illuminating the contradiction of the Negro Units struggling “against broad American racism” and the perpetuation of African American stereotypes under the domination of “white representation of blacks,” but places the majority of her focus on the “performance of American identity and nationhood” (130).

Whereas Frost’s work suggests Graham’s show was a performance of American identity and nationhood, I see it as performance of African identity and nationhood. Her performance of race challenged oppressive, marginalized images, while presenting in quietly subversive form, an indictment and deconstruction of the mythologized “negro.” Here the artist created a place of identification – a place where she defined the representation on stage – Graham literally drew out for the audience the contradiction between mainstream “black Americana” (Little Black Sambo) and her alignment with African nationalism. This combination of art and politics as a foundation for self-defined African American philosophical and ideological identification can be seen in all of Shirley Graham’s playwriting and directing. In light of her pan-Africanist politics and her other theatrical productions, I think her construction of Sambo exudes a social message about identification which moves far beyond mere entertainment for children.

Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?

-W.E.B. Du Bois,
Criteria of Negro Art

The term “race man” is associated with Marcus Garvey and his pan-Africanist movement which began in the second decade of the twentieth century. The late August Wilson described a “race man” as one who concerns himself with race – someone who identifies race as the “most identifiable and most important part of our personality” (Wilson 14). Gerald Horne named his biography on Graham Race Woman, indicating a racial consciousness existent in the forefront of Graham’s mind, and in her social/political agenda.

One of the biggest challenges in looking at this text lies in peeling away the layers upon layers of historical circumstances surrounding the birth of Little Black Sambo – its birth in India, an imperialized nineteenth century English colony – then its subsequent distribution and ascension to its status as “Americana” in a racially torn America – leading to its burgeoning controversy throughout the twentieth into the twenty-first centuries. In this time of history, blacks were portrayed as caricatures, and in the FTP, the popular images of blacks were the same. bell hooks describes the way in which “ostensibly” benign images of black people in the media today (and in the past) have become ways through which images become acceptable and normal – institutionalized racism naturalizes negative cultural traditions (112-116). She points to the shroud that descends upon traditionally accepted and defended institutions and classifies it as the internalization of social apartheid (112). After slavery “ended,” a philosophy of racial inferiority was taught through a variety of methods. hooks writes that it was the minds of blacks and whites now being colonized:

This strategy of colonialism needed no country, for the space it sought to own and conquer was the minds of whites and blacks. As long as a harsh brutal system of racial apartheid was in place, separating blacks from whites by laws, coercive structures of punishment, and economic disenfranchisement, many black people seemed to intuitively understand that our ability to resist racist domination was nurtured by a refusal of the colonizing mindset. (112)

This mutable movement of strategy and positioning comes into relationship, however, with immutable forces that define and sustain the exotic “other.” The relationship between power, knowledge, and identification ideologically traps the process of identity formation. Effectively, the journey that sustains self-definition is halted, and here, through nineteenth century visions of blackness, the dominant, culturally defined identity of “negro” became fixed and concrete. The domination by the hegemonic class preserved the lower human status of black Americans and all other “non-whites” and froze representation into one thing – here the triad of picanniny, mammy, and coon. Black Americans fought against their categorization in an “inferior status,” but were not allowed on a mainstream level to make their own artistic identifications.

Graham, like Fanon, refused the language and definitions of her oppressors to create her own sense of identification. This production, by “performing” traditional, native African motifs, can be seen as moving toward achieving Fanon’s desire for national liberation and the resurrection of a culture systematically destroyed through colonialism. Fanon’s idea of combat literature (here, combat performance) calls for the formation of a national literature which speaks directly from the oppressed to the oppressed and requires the “whole people” to come together to fight their domination. Here the deeply layered complexity of Graham’s production can be recognized – especially in light of Sambo’s contested origins, confusing illustrations, and its controversial reception throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. During Sambo’s run in 1938, as well as now, critics then struggled and continue to struggle with the use of the text and its employment of the racist name “Sambo.” While those issues and concerns cannot be ignored, I see Graham’s Sambo, not as visual terrorism, as other minstrel-based FTP productions, but rather, that her production presented a nationalistic, empowering perspective.

Her African aesthetic at work in Sambo is first viewed in her opera Tom-Tom. As the name suggests, the African drum is an important symbol representing national and individual pride and strength. In Sambo, much like Tom-Tom, the presence and role of the drum is significant. It calls to Sambo at the beginning of the play and leads him home at the end. Fanon, in contrast, describes a different conception of “tom-toms.” He writes of being beaten down by “tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetichism, racial defects, slave ships, and above all else, above all: ‘Sho’ good eatin’” (Fanon 112). Here he clearly points to the way the dominant culture connects his “African-ness” with an erroneous primitivization of these characteristics. Graham’s concept showed a strength of culture unlike the exoticism of Macbeth, the violence of Haiti, or the offensive mockery of the minstrel show. But rather, through her African nationalist aesthetic, she said to American culture, since the white man continues to challenge my humanity, “I will impose my whole weight as a man on his life and show him that I am not that ‘sho’ good eatin’’ that he persists in imagining” (Fanon 229).

Visual culture produces racial consciousness, both positive and negative. Little Black Sambo’s history as “visual culture” in all forms has been problematic; it cannot rest securely in the “It’s-a-classic-therefore-immune-from-criticism” category (in whatever form – book, play, or film). Over fifty different editions appeared in the United States alone between 1900 and 1981 with the subsequent, many, and mostly unauthorized “interpretations” of Little Black Sambo distorting Bannerman’s already ambiguous illustrations into horrific stereotypes of African Americans (Hay 156). As I have been arguing, Shirley Graham's production sought to defy these ugly stereotypes and raise the performance to embody a more authentic African-American experience. Critics like Rena Fraden, however, place Graham’s Little Black Sambo in a category along with other FTP projects like Marionette Vaudeville and 56 Minstrels, which include such stories as "The Coon-Town Thirteen Club," "The Darktown Follies," and "The Watermelon Minstrel," even writing that some people do not have qualms about producing "this kind" of entertainment (58-59). By “this kind,” I am inferring that Fraden views Graham's production as racist, oppressive, and based on an imposed sense of identification. I could not agree more that this story is built upon a foundation of racial superiority, one frequently overlooked while “debating” Bannerman’s intent, and whether or not representations of Sambo are indeed racist. But I believe Graham’s adaptation and its resistance to the story’s stereotyped characters used the master’s tools – the language and literature created that caricatured blacks – to disassemble a racist icon (Sambo) – to dismantle the master’s house (Lorde 110). Even though the play and the director met with disapproval from some members of the black community, the production presented a different perspective of “blackness” from that to which white audiences of the time were conditioned. Graham’s production marked a point of resistance.

My consideration of Sambo differs from Fraden’s in that I look at Graham’s contribution in the larger context of her political and social positioning. Graham, who later in life became a confidant and political adviser to Kwame Nkrumah (and was heavily criticized for it), was also close to Malcolm X, Stokley Carmicheal (Kwame Ture), and other leaders of the Black Power movement. Graham’s efforts to overcome, or perhaps more accurately subvert and disassemble, the racist ideology of Sambo must be recognized in this larger field of her work as an activist. She was well aware of racism and its effects on the lives of black Americans in the United States. To sweep her production of LBS into a corner without looking at the attempts she made to differentiate her concept from other minstrel-based productions misses the social and historical relevance of a black woman representing black people in strong, Garvey-like Africanism. I judge her production as removing the black performer from the trappings of minstrelsy and creating a place of empowerment. Graham took ownership of the oppressive nature of the script, but rejected the way in which that oppression was usually played out. She did not direct her actors in the denigrating, bumbling, “yes, massar” style of minstrelsy, but showed ownership in her definition of “black-ness” – one rooted deeply in a distinctly African perspective of culture and history.


Works Cited

Bannerman, Helen. Little Black Sambo. 1921. Bedford: Applewood, 1996.

Boskin, Joseph. Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester. New York: Oxford, 1986.

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. New York: Greenwood, 1990.

Chorpenning, Charlottle. Little Black Sambo and the Tigers. New York: Dramatists, 1938.

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Criteria of Negro Art.” The Portable Harlem Renaissance. Ed. David Levering Lewis. New York: Penguin, 1994. 100-105.

Fanon, Franz. Black Skins, White Mask. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove, 1967.

Fraden, Rena. Blueprints for a Black Federal Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Frost, Leslie. Dreaming America: Politics and Childhood on the Federal Theatre Project Stage. Diss. U of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2000.

Graham, Shirley. Production Notes. Production Book: Little Black Sambo. Chicago Negro Unit Production. Library of Congress Production Records, 1934-1943. Production Title File, 1934-1939. Box 1032.

---. “Tom-Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro.” The Roots of African American Drama: An Anthology of Early Plays, 1858-1938. Ed. Leo Hamalian and James V. Hatch. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1991. 238-286.

Hay, Elizabeth. Sambo Sahib: The Story of Little Black Sambo & Helen Bannerman. Totowa: Barnes & Noble, 1981.

Hill, Errol and James V. Hatch. A History of African American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

hooks, bell. “The Resisting Viewer.” Performance Analysis: An Introductory Coursebook. Ed. Colin Counsell and Laurie Wolf. New York: Routledge. 111-116.

Horne, Gerald. Race Woman: The Many Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. New York: New York UP, 2000.

Krasner, David. Resistance, Parody, and Double Consciousness in African American Theatre. New York: St. Matrin’s 1997.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. 1984. Freedom: Crossing, 1998.

Neal, Larry. “Into Nationalism, Out of Parochiolism.” The Theatre of Black Americans: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Errol Hill. New York: Applause, 1987. 293-300.

Nyong’o, Tavia. “Racial Kitsch and Black Performance.” The Yale Journal of Criticism. 15:2 (2002). 371-391.

Production Photos. Little Black Sambo. Production Book: Little Black Sambo. Chicago Negro Unit Production. Library of Congress Production Records, 1934-1943. Production Title File, 1934-1939. Box 1032.

Wilson, August. The Ground on Which I Stand. New York: TCG, 2001.

 

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