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Persuasive Games: Little Black Sambo

September 21, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next
 

[Scribblenauts' vast dictionary accidentally includes an archaic racial slur. In this opinion piece, game designer and writer Ian Bogost analyzes the ethical quandary -- and, more importantly, the ensuing response.]

The distinctive feature of 5th Cell's critically-acclaimed Nintendo DS game Scribblenauts is its enormous dictionary of terms, any of which can be written to summon objects to solve puzzles in the game. Just about anything you might want to write, from "acai berry" to "zygote," gets transformed into a functional object.

With well over twenty thousand words represented, some are bound to be surprising. And indeed, shortly after its release, a player found and reported an unusual term in the game's dictionary: "sambo."

"Sambo" is a racial slur that originated in eighteenth century British and American English. It was, and remains, a derogatory way to refer to a black man.

While its origins remain somewhat mysterious, the term is best known today thanks to the 1894 children's book Little Black Sambo, which tells the story of a boy named Sambo who outwits a series of tigers who threaten to eat him.

The cultural context for Little Black Sambo is complex. Its author, Helen Bannerman, was a Scot living in Madras during the period of British colonization. This explains both the tigers and the "blackness" of the boy, since the British often referred to Indians as black.

Yet, the name she chose for the boy referred primarily to a largely American term for African slaves. While the original edition caricatured Southern Indian appearances, later editions, including those published in the U.S., depicted Sambo as a "darky" or a minstrel golliwogg, further cementing its association with the negative racial stereotype of a negro simpleton.

By the 1930s, the Little Black Sambo character appeared regularly in popular culture, including a variety of animation adaptations of Bannerman's story. In this 1935 cartoon, the characters are clearly meant to refer to African American blackness, as the addition of the black mammy and stereotypical speech suggest.

But by this time, negative reactions to the story and figure of black Sambo were already beginning to appear. As the years passed, many began criticizing the book as offensive to black children, and it gradually fell out of favor in libraries and schools, even as other editions appeared that attempted to rescue the story from its racist roots.

(Among these is the 1996 The Story of Little Babaji, a direct copy of Bannerman's original text with new illustrations by Fred Marcellino. This edition became a best-seller, and Marcellino was credited with rescuing the tale from its accidental fate as a symbol of American racism.)


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