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Before the tumultuous events of the 1960's ended his long life, "Sambo" prevailed in American culture as the cheerful and comical entertainer. Sambo was the stereotypical image of the black male which developed during the Colonial period, extended into all regions and classes, and pervaded all levels of the popular culture for over two centuries, so much so that he could be regarded as the first humorous icon.
As Joseph Boskin notes, virtually all societies conceived of their slaves in servile terms, but in the North American hemisphere, the black slave came to be seen as both a worker and entertainer. Why this came to pass is bound up with white perceptions of the black male as a laborer possessing a buguiling style. Whites were fascinated by black movement: the gait, music, language, and especially the laugh. Sambo was to be found everywhere in American society: in circuses and minstrel shows, in comic strips and novels, in children's stories, in advertisements and illustrations, in films and slides, in magazines and newspapers, in postcards and greeting cards, and in knick-knacks found throughout the house. Whatever the variation of his image, the central element was always humor—Sambo was conceived as the initiator and butt of laughter.
Boskin shows how the stereotype began to unravel in the 1930's with several radio series, specifically the Amos 'n' Andy and Jack Benny shows. The relationship between Benny and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson—the first of the odd couples inelectronic media—particularly undercut and altered the Sambo image as Rochester gradually achieved an aggressive stance with his "boss" and often reversed roles with him in a curious way. Finally, the democratic thrust of World War II, coupled with the black efforts to terminate Jim Crow practices and the rise of prominent black comedians on the national level in the 1960's, laid Sambo to rest.
About the Author:
Joseph Boskin is Professor of History and Afro-American Studies and Director of the Urban Studies and Public Policy Program at Boston University. His previous books include Into Slavery and Humor and Social Change in the Twentieth Century.
This examines the image in all its manifestations, brilliantly analyzing the reasons for its popularity and its ultimate unraveling.
|1||An Epitaph Read Backward in Time||3|
|2||As His Name Is, So Is He||17|
|3||Ladies and Gentlemen: Your Attention, Please! Would You Welcome The First American Entertainer Sambo!!||42|
|4||And Performing Today at Balls, Circuses, Theatres Picnics, Churches, Schools, and Prisons--The Indomitable, Spirited, Laughing... Jim Crow, Esquire!!||65|
|5||Impressions in Boldface||95|
|7||The Camera Eye||148|
|8||The Radio Ear: The Odd-Couples Connection||164|
|9||The Fool as an Emancipator||198|