My Turn: When ‘Little Black Sambo’ was just a clever kid




Published: 02-25-2024 2:01 PM

Juneteenth. A conversation with friends of color about things from my childhood. As I am well into my 90th decade, it was a long time ago and I reminisced a bit.

I began with speaking of the Uncle Remus stories, little moral tales told by an elderly uncle type Black man. I think I must have had a little storybook; the stories always ended with the naughty person or animal being in the wrong. That always seemed right to me, Uncle Remus just a nice person, telling stories to children.

“Little Black Sambo” — I just thought he was clever getting those tigers to run till they turned into butter! I never thought he was “less than myself,” just a child trying to help his parents.

In the kitchen of my childhood we ate Cream of Wheat cereal, and I thought the nice-looking Cream of Wheat man on the box looked rather dashing in his chef’s hat. My dad made pancakes for us, so Aunt Jemima was not often a guest at our table. She just looked sort of motherly and comfortable when she did drop in. We also met “Uncle Ben” and his rice at times, but we were no big rice eaters, and the who of the product mattered less than the product itself.

As I grew older, there were radio programs. Remember Amos and Andy? They were also on the funny papers. Even I knew they were not like our family, but one of them got married, they had a baby, named Amosandra! The company came out with an actual brown rubber baby doll that you could send for. Nothing would have it, I really wanted that doll, and by some miracle I got it! Mom bought her pretty doll dress for her and I took her with me everywhere. My home did not run to extra presents — this was beyond unusual.

On the radio, the Jack Benny show was pretty funny, with his valet, “Rochester,” as his straight man. But their repartee was the best, I thought — Rochester and the tone he used showed the audience who was really the most clever.

At the movies we saw and heard so many wonderful entertainers, the beautiful and talented Lena Horne; dancers like Bill Bojangles Robinson, so many others; boxers like Muhammad Ali, baseball players like Jackie Robinson, musicians Fats Walker, Louis Armstrong, all the women singers. I admired their work, paid for tickets to see them.

And I never thought how hard, frightening, insulting their private lives must have been.

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In downtown Greenfield one day in the early ’60s, my young son asked me, loudly of course, “Mana, why is that little boy so tan?” The mom and I exchanged a bit of conversation, the boys looked each other over. Did they ever meet in school? My son graduated in 1974.

My daughter, in 1966 or 1967, was quite horrified to find the band had to send their formal portrait to the school in Virginia where they would be playing an exchange concert — to be sure they had no band members of color.

And here we are today. Much has changed, but have we really evolved?

As a small child I was unaware that being different mattered; realized, getting older, that we were not the only people in the world but never gave much thought to the lives of others. Was that racist?

So much “news” all the time, so much to think about, to react to (or not).

I was born at a certain time. I recall things that today’s generation has never heard of.

I never thought life would become so complicated. Growing older. What’s next?

Estelle Cade lives in Greenfield.