The above video might explain why some people find the term "Sambo" less than endearing.
If you reside in the 37206, the East Nashville Listserv is your ultimate online resource--whether you want to find a good gutter-repair service or start a neighborhood militia. Like any community forum worth its salt, the ENL strikes a delicate balance, blending the warm, neighborly vibe of a backyard picnic with the contentiousness of the Iraqi Parliament, as previously noted on Pith.
So when I checked my listserv digest email a couple days ago and saw a thread titled "Sambo came home," I knew we were in for a wild ride. I poured myself a steaming cup of Drew's Brews' from my Society of Effete Liberals-approved French press and pulled my trendy ergonomic desk chair up to my iMac for a ringside seat.
The original "Sambo came home!" post, by Jess:
"Our cat that wondered [sic] off a week ago came home last night! He is in good shape but was very hungry! He is now collared and tagged! Yay! Life is good!"
OK. So Sambo is a cat. A cat with an offensive name, perhaps, though it becomes apparent that Jess had no idea of the name's racist legacy.
First reply comment, by Ryan:
"I'm glad that your cat came home, but SAMBO? Are you serious? I guess 'Whiskers' was too generic or something. What's your dog's name, Pickininny?"
So began a listserv firestorm that as of this writing has garnered 95 comments on three separate threads. (The other two are titled "Look what Sambo started" and "The truth about Sambo Jangles.")
Highlights from the melee, analysis and guaranteed winning Powerball numbers, after the jump:
Rembrandt: "I love sambo movies, i'll be baaack"
Ryan: "I'm also quite fond of naming my domesticated animals after racial slurs. We should set up a play date with my cats, Honkey and Peckerwood."
Jess: "I didn't name him and until last night discussing this email chain with Lauren did I realize it was a racial slur! It was originally a character in a children story. I'm very upset that his name could be racist and from now on we're only going to call him Sam. Our other cats are Roxy, Velma and Oscar and I don't think any of those are slurs!"
Alexis: "You use [a racial slur] every time you call your cat. Seriously. While you may have been ignorant of the term's racist connotation when you originally selected the name, you know it now. And because it seems you're totally unfazed by it and unwilling to acknowledge that you gave your cat a racist name -- you send a pretty loud and clear 'impression' to all of us 'touchy' (i.e. black) people out there. Just saying."
Grizzly: "...Alexis and Ryan, NO.....BODY......CAAAAAAARES. Lauren you better change that damn cat's name right on back to Sambo. Don't let the idiot side of East Nashville get to you or you'll have a loooooong stay here...."
psychcat: "Name your pet whatever you like. Political Correctness is all about self-guilt anyway. I would have been more disappointed had you changed the cat's name... I like it. Remember, no one can offend you... you have to let them and accept it. We're all adults here (I'm assuming) so come on...."
Chuck: "For those who may remember the old Jack Benny shows, should city of Rochester change its name?"
Cecilia: "the name of your cat is precious!!! If I'd been creative enough I would have named my black cat (God rest her 17 year old soul) that instead of Kitten!!! see no creative mind here."
Ryan: "Well, it's probably quite easy to forget that racial slurs exist if you've never been a racial minority on the receiving end of one.... that you would choose to name your cat 'Sambo' suggests that you're either unaware of this history or utterly insensitive to it. Why stop at Sambo? Why not call him Little Negro or Darky instead? People obviously have the right to name their pets whatever they like. But when you choose a racially provocative name, you can't really be surprised if some people (especially those silly, super-sensitive, over-educated Black folks) respond to it, and to you, negatively. To some it may be an issue of PCness; to me it's an issue of having the basic respect to not use an obvious racial slur in my presence (cyber or otherwise).
Wryker: "it is a freaking cat--move along people..."
Stephanie" "ha ha ha...you could say kumquat on here and start a mile long thread!"
landotter: "So I can name my pet gopher 'Ralph Reed', and it's all cool?"
Now when I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Sambo was an unambiguously racist term. I still remember my parents taking me to see the musical Hair when I was 9 years old (yes, my folks are socialist heathens too), and I can still hear the verse from the song "Colored Spade" that went, "Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Little Black Sambo." And there's a library's worth of Internet information about the term's storied racist past.
Still, as she makes clear in subsequent posts, Jess had no idea that Sambo had ever been a pejorative. In fact, when I asked a worldly, college-educated mid-20s colleague of mine what the term "Sambo" meant to her, I was surprised to find she had no knowledge of its implications. But Scene editor Pete Kotz, another Yankee of a similar vintage to myself, remembers the term as an unmitigated racist slur.
Which brings up a couple of questions: Is Sambo's racist legacy a regional or generational phenomenon? Is it still offensive? Can racist slurs expire?
Surely Jess had no bad intentions and was unaware of the term's connotations. Still, I find it amusing is that so many posters felt the need to vehemently defend the name.
As a friend of mine so succinctly put it, "Life is too short to defend 'Sambo.' "