My Little Black Bookends Tell All

Growing up in rural Lancaster County in the 1950s, I had very little opportunity to meet people of other ethnic groups, but I did have a Little Black Sambo book that introduced me to a culture different from mine. So, I have not always been embarrassed by this book. Fascinated, yes, but embarrassed, no. The picture of the tiger running around an African palm tree as the tiger morphed into a golden round pool of butter mesmerized me as a child, butter that would become one of the ingredients of the pancake recipe. The next page shows Black Sambo’s mother Black Mumbo with her glossy brown arm stirring a mound of melted butter making pancakes. The picture made me hungry. And on the last page:

Little Black Sambo_pancake_web shot

And then they all sat down to supper. Black Mumbo ate twenty-seven pancakes, Black Jumbo ate fifty-five. But little Black Sambo ate a hundred and sixty-nine because he was so hungry!!! (Yes, there are three exclamation marks in the book I am holding.) 

Characters in folktales are typically overblown, with exaggerated details like Little Black Sambo’s super big eyes, through which he gazes at three heaping plates of pancakes with a pot of syrup dribbling all over the table. Obviously, he is ready to stuff his mouth with piles of pancakes.

But there are other tales in the book with the Little Black Sambo cover: The Little Red Hen, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and The Country Mouse and The Town Mouse. Mr. McGregor and the kitchen maid in the “Mouse” story have white faces, but there is no reference to their whiteness. Their race is assumed as white and therefore not particularly notable.

Little Black Sambo_Cover_web shot

I paged through this book recently as we cleared out books in Mother’s house and marveled at the stereotypes about black people back then and was embarrassed by it: A black woman with a big butt and goofy name wearing a “maid” cap on her head, black people eating nothing but fried foods, everyone eating too much.

Another find un-earthed in our sifting through “Stuff” – a pair of book-ends I made in school that portrays black children as a novelty.

blackBookends

Interestingly, my niece Shakeeta, my brother Mark’s daughter, choose these as one of the few things she wanted as a remembrance from her Grandma Longenecker’s house. She hoists them up with a smile here:

KiKiBlackBookends

I guess it’s time I catch up with the times and adjust my ideas about black memorabilia. Singer Anita Pointer certainly has. In an article entitled “A Lesson in History,” (AARP Feb/March 2015) Anita, one of the Pointer Sisters, says she collects black memorabilia so she’ll never forget how her people were once depicted.

BlackMemorabiliaAARP

We grew up in Oakland, California, but when I was 10 we visited my  grandma in Arkansas. I couldn’t believe how people were living there. They had a white and a black part of town, and you stayed off the white side. At the department store, they had colored and white water fountains. I don’t want to ever forget that’s what it was like for us — and collecting black memorabilia is how I do that.   (66)

Like Whoopi Goldberg and Spike Lee, Anita collects black memorabilia as museum pieces including a “Mammy” cookie jar, and a 1970s John Henry whiskey decanter made by Jim Beam. When the prestigious house of Sotheby’s came to appraise her collection, it took a year to sort and categorize it. She comments, “The appraiser said that I could pretty much charge what I want because most of the pieces are one of a kind.”  In the end, Anita Pointer sees her collection of thousands of pieces as part of her personal history. She doesn’t apologize for any of it.

Of course, I’m hanging onto my Little Black Sambo book. It’s a part of my personal history.

Your comments welcome here!

(Answers to Shakespeare puzzlers from April 22, 2015 post below.)

Answer Key2_mod

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School Daze: Songs We Sang

Second Grade: Rheems Elementary School
Second Grade: Rheems Elementary School

Valentine parties, Easter parades, Hallowe’en fun houses in the basement, Christmas programs, we had them all, but those were special occasions. At Rheems Elementary, a two-room school, we had our daily ritual: Bell ringing from the school-house steeple (always by a boy), Bible reading, the Lord’s Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and then singing before lessons began:

This is My Father’s World, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and Home on the Range were staples in our little golden songbook. But many of the lyrics we sang would be considered insulting to various ethnic and racial groups today. For example, Old Solomon Levi, playing to the stereotype of the wily Jewish merchant:

My name is Solomon Levi

At my store in Salem Street,

There’s where you find your coats and vests,

And ev’rything else that’s neat:

I’ve second-handed Ulsterettes,

And ev’rything else that’s fine;

For all the boys — they trade with me,

At one hundred and forty-nine.

Chorus.

Oh, Mister Levi, Levi, tra, la, la, la.

Poor Solomon Levi, tra, la, la, la, la, la, la, la

Next, we might sing My Old Kentucky Home with what was then dubbed the negro dialect: “The sun shines bright in on my old Kentucky Home, / Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”

What! “Darkies are gay . . . “?  Innocent of the dissonance in the words we would discover later, we sang the chorus at the top of our lungs:” Weep no more, my lady. Oh, weep no more to-day; / We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home. / For the old Kentucky home, far away.” For sure, Paula Deen would be safe in such a culture.

The dialect continued when we belted out Dixie: “I wish I was in de land ob cotton, / Old times dar am not forgotten, Look a-way! Look a-way! Look a-way! Dixie Land.” There was even a winking nod to obesity in one of the stanzas: “Dar’s buckwheat cakes, an’ Injun batter, / Makes you fat or a little fatter . . . .

And then there was the wistful: When You and I Were Young, Maggie, and My Grandfather’s Clock, sung by youngsters that had no conception of aging or mortality.

Grandfather'sClock lyrics

GrandfatherClock_crop_180

Graduating to Junior High in 7th grade, the singing before lessons stopped, but my classmates and I were introduced to both highbrow and lowbrow music. The official music teacher, Miss Enterline, fresh out of college, enthralled us with Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice  and cajoled us to join her gender-separate choruses: Melo-men and Melo-dears. Then there was my homeroom and typing teacher, Mrs. Elsie Care. Her door name-plate said “Mrs.” but when she came to school in a dress with a zipper down the back, she asked a student to help out with the zippering up. Where was Mr. Care, I wondered: Traveling? Too busy to bother? Was she separated, or even divorced? I noticed someone always helped her out of her sartorial dilemma soon enough. Though she taught business courses, she insisted that we learned the words to “16 Ton,” even writing them on the blackboard with her large, loopy handwriting. At the time I thought it strange, but, endearingly, she had introduced us to pop culture:

 Tennessee Ernie Ford

Mrs. Care signed my yearbook with shorthand, which I neither cared about nor understood, but her quirkiness is etched in memory. . . Mrs. Elsie G. Care, the “G” for Gioconda, woman of mystery and intrigue.