Dancing Sambo: Obedient Enertainment

Dancing Sambo Puppet

Dancing Sambo Puppet

This image of a Sambo puppet reinforces negative stereotypes forced upon African-Americans until only recently in US history.  This toy portrays African-Americans as controlled entertainment.

The image contains both a puppet and poster or booklet describing its use.  The doll has dark skin and exaggerated  large, red lips. He has a white-painted nose set above a wide grin. His pants are brightly striped and around the puppet’s neck is a large polka dot bow-tie.  A top hat sits on his grinning face. The doll’s knees are hinged, giving the viewer the illusion that he is moving, or most likely dancing. Many aspects of the doll are over-sized and bright. From the white gloves, to the clownish mouth, this is not an image that a viewer would take very seriously.

The paper to the right of the doll looks as though it is a poster or booklet. It has a picture of the Sambo puppet dancing, looking exactly like the physical puppet. The text makes the statements that the puppet is: “Easy to work” and, “Fun at your parties”. The words “Dancing Sambo” are in block letters above the image, playfully tilted and seem mirroring the dancing figure of the puppet.

The fact that this character is a puppet on strings on its own implies that African-Americans are to be controlled. When the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man encounters a previous brother selling Sambo dolls, he is outraged.  He knows that he has been played like a puppet his entire life, always letting someone control his actions. Sambo is kept in line by doing and moving as others would like him to.  Its limbs are hinged, which give the illusion that the puppet is dancing.  This further disrespects African-Americans by presenting them as tools of entertainment. This idea of entertainment can also be seen in the phrases on the booklet.  They claim that Sambo is easy to work and fun at parties.  This fits into the identity that was forced upon African-Americans to be obedient and put on a show when needed.

This form of dehumanizing disrespect is evident in  Invisible Man.  The protagonist is first made to give his graduation speech to a group of white men after being forced to fight other African-Americans and provide comedy by getting shocked while trying to pick up money.  These men were only using the protagonist for their enjoyment; to laugh at him. In another instance, the protagonist is asked by a drunken member of the Brotherhood to do a dance because of his skin color.  This character desires entertainment from the African-American man who would of course be good at dancing. The Sambo puppet only increases these stereotypes in its character’s clownish appearance and reliable movements that his owner can have control over.

This Sambo doll does not only serve as a toy to be played with.  It is a representation of negative identities imposed on African-Americans.  The fact that it is to be controlled on a string and made to dance by its owner, along with its bright and silly appearance reinforce the identity of an obedient entertainer on African-Americans.



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