I’m not a confrontational person. But on one particular day I felt compelled not only as a black woman but as a person with common sense to speak up and say something.
My family and I were downtown on a Saturday afternoon and parked in front of an Antique store. Something caught my eye. I saw a huge tin poster of a black boy with enlarged red lips and big eyes with the title “The One and Only Black Sambo!” I was shocked and appalled. I wanted to protect my children and others from seeing this horrible form of racist memorabilia.
Why was I so easily upset by this piece of merchandise? Because we are exposed to dehumanizing images from the past like Little Black Sambo and other racist depictions daily, and most of us don’t even recognize it. Take the grocery store for example. Look closely next time you’re in need of pancakes, syrup, rice, or farina. What images do you see? I bet you can visualize at least one example now that I’ve pointed it out. The harsh reality is that racist memorabilia is a multi-billion dollar industry.
So, when I saw “The One and Only Black Sambo” I was compelled to say something. I walked into the store and calmly asked for the manager. Growing up black in America, I was taught to approach certain situations involving ignorance as calmly as possible. I spoke calmly to the elderly white female employee. I voiced my concerns about the merchandise. I shared that this particular piece might be offensive to some. She became defensive and refused to move the horrible black caricature. The moment I tried to reason with her, she became angry. I suggested she turn the sign over to the inside of the store, that way foot traffic outside the store would not be offended.
I walked over and showed her where the sign was. She rolled her eyes and said she would move it. I felt in my gut that I did the right thing and I hoped she would listen. A few days later, I went back to that Antique Store and saw “The One and Only Little Black Sambo” still facing the streetlight staring back at me.
This might seem like such a small thing. But when we look at it in the context of an entire industry or consumer culture we see that brands still leverage similar images to sell products. So I ask, when will we stop buying and start changing the momentum of a multi-billion dollar industry that dehumanizes people of color?