Little Known Black History Fact: Sambo

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To most of us, the phrase “Uncle Tom” is synonymous with a Black person who has sold out their race. The character Stephen from Django played by Samuel L. Jackson, is a perfect example of someone commonly referred to as a “Tom.”

In actuality, the term “Sambo” better fits the characteristics we often ascribe to Uncle Tom.

The racial term “Sambo” first came to prominence in modern American culture with the publishing of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, the origin of the term reaches back to the 1700s according to some scholars, and there is evidence the name is a variation of a West African name as well.

Today, the term is largely derogatory but the etymology of the word appears to be “zambo,” a word that was used during the Spanish and Portuguese Empire periods to describe a mixed person that appeared more Black than white. It was also said to mean bow-legged or knock-kneed. There is also evidence that the word is derived from the West African Foulah tribal language, which translates into “uncle.”

In Stowe’s 1852 book, the character of Sambo was one of the slave overseers that work for the cruel slave owner, Simon Legree. Uncle Tom, a god-fearing slave with a compassionate heart, was tormented and beaten to death by Sambo, who regretted his act even as Tom forgave him as he was dying. Although Stowe had higher aims with her book, the depiction of Black characters as matronly and subservient further added to stereotypes that persist today

Scottish author Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo in 1899 also gave the term more of its negative connection. The tale of a dark-skinned East Indian boy helped push the narrative that the term was racist and meant to be offensive.

Other variants of the name appear throughout African and indigenous culture across the Caribbean. In several African languages, especially along the coasts, the name was rather common despite differing spellings.

The Ten Most Interesting Little Known Black History Facts
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4 thoughts on “Little Known Black History Fact: Sambo

  1. The great African-American historian, John Hope Franklin, states this clearly: “The majority of Negro owners of slaves had some personal interest in their property.” But, he admits, “There were instances, however, in which free Negroes had a real economic interest in the institution of slavery and held slaves in order to improve their economic status.”

    And for a time, free black people could even “own” the services of white indentured servants in Virginia as well. Free blacks owned slaves in Boston by 1724 and in Connecticut by 1783; by 1790, 48 black people in Maryland owned 143 slaves. One particularly notorious black Maryland farmer named Nat Butler “regularly purchased and sold Negroes for the Southern trade.”

    Owning slaves offered the opportunity for economic advancement for blacks. By the mid 1700’s, black artisans and shopkeepers owned slaves in the city, while free blacks also held slaves on farms in the country. In the city of Charleston, free blacks nearly monopolized the jobs of barbers, bricklayers, shoemakers, tailors and dressmakers. They prospered in their entrepreneurial jobs and were able to earn the capital needed to purchase slaves.

  2. FallMornings on said:

    I’ve often heard that we should not address a sell-out as Uncle Tom but Sambo. He did more harm to the slaves that Uncle Tom. We need to read before we speak and learn the true meanings of words and terms.

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