sambo meets jim crow

i thought this worth sharing.  i’ve been questioning myself as to why i keep posting these old negative images… what’s my point?… how is this helping?… i’m not exactly sure, but i think it has something to do with wanting everyone to examine the framework from which our racial paradigm originated.  to see how these notions of majority vs. minority (and all of the implications held therein) came to be ingrained into our national subconscious… how they continue to be perpetuated on some level by today’s media/advertising… and how, perhaps, we just take it all for granted… “it’s just the way things are, the way we are”… but it’s all so preposterous… things can be any way we choose to make them, any way we choose to see them… choose to see ourselves and each other…

The Black Conscription.

When Black Meets Black Then Comes the End(?) of War.

Punch, Volume 45, September 26, 1863, p. 129

To modern sensibilities, this is one of the most offensive of Tenniel’s cartoons, as its theme is the notion that black men are incapable of becoming good soldiers. In a (wholly hypothetical) meeting of Union and Confederate black troops on the battlefield, martial ardor dissolves into comic stereotype. The Northern conscript is identifiable by his striped trousers. His Southern counterpart, dressed in a white cotton uniform distinguished only by a capital letter “S” on his belt and bandolier, breaks into an open-mouthed grin and begins to caper as the two clasp hands. Behind them, surrounding their respective flags, representatives of the two black conscript armies socialize with obvious amiability, forgetting all pretense of military discipline. In word balloons, the Northern soldier asks “Dat you Sambo? Yeah, yeah!” while his Southern counterpart responds “Bless my heart, how am you, Jim?”

While the ranks of Northern black regiments ultimately included many “contraband” fugitives from slave states, the earliest black troops (such as the famed 54th Massachusetts) were recruited exclusively from the free black populations of Northern states. Many of these units acquitted themselves bravely on the field of battle. Officially, there was no conscription of blacks as combat soldiers by either side: all were volunteers. While blacks were used by the Southern forces throughout the war in non-combat roles (especially as laborers for tasks such as the construction of fortifications), the raising of black troops to fight for the Confederacy, though proposed cautiously by a few within the military, was vehemently resisted by most Southerners as deleterious to the slave system until the war was almost over. There is no record that the few units of black Confederate soldiers, organized during the final weeks before the fall of Richmond (nearly eighteen months after the publication of this cartoon), ever met black Union troops in combat. The name Sambo, the “characteristic” dialogue of the two principal figures, and the capering dance of the Southern black soldier all are based on the stage caricatures of blacks presented by (mostly white) actors wearing burnt-cork makeup in the minstrel shows popular during the mid-nineteenth century, some of which had toured to London.

The cartoon’s subcaption is a play on the old English proverb “When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war,” a way of describing a situation in which two sides are so equally matched that neither is likely to prevail. Its use is documented as far back as the seventeenth century, and it had been quoted by the popular novelist Anthony Trollope as a chapter title in Doctor Thorne, published a few years prior to the Civil War in 1858.

African Americans in the Tenniel Cartoons

Black Americans appear in twelve of the cartoons. Tenniel tends to treat them in a condescending, stereotypic manner. In his own time such images were doubtless regarded as humorous; the modern reader is more likely to see them as examples of blatant racism. Southern slaves are typically shown wearing simple white cotton work shirts and short trousers, and are usually barefoot [601201610119;650506]. Free Northern blacks are sometimes differentiated by their better-dressed appearance, including long trousers and shoes [620809630808]. Blacks (always male) are alternatively the hapless victims of oppression by the Southern slavocracy [610119], the dupes of Lincoln and his Black Republican cronies [620809630124], or gleeful observers of the white man’s cataclysmic war [610518;620913]. Tenniel and his contemporary British audience seem a bit too eager to dismiss out of hand the notion that blacks themselves had the capacity to be good soldiers, willing to fight and die for their freedom [630926641119] — perhaps because of concerns about the possible implications of such a radical idea for the future of their own Anglo-Saxon Empire’s dominion over darker-skinned people around the world.

The cartoons’ captions and text balloons often contain examples of pseudo-black dialect speech. While the intent is humorous, it also serves as a way to underscore the presumed social and intellectual gulf between the childlike, uneducated African American and Punch‘s sophisticated, urbane, upper-class readers. It is unlikely that Tenniel and his colleagues were familiar with actual black speech. As an avid patron of the theatre, Tenniel may have attended performances by American minstrel troupes, some of which had toured to London. In these shows, white actors in burnt-cork blackface makeup parodied the “characteristic” language, music, and dancing of blacks (who in many American cities were not themselves permitted to appear on stage). From the vantage of hindsight, we can see today that the minstrel shows allowed the dominant white culture to use humor to depersonalize blacks and perpetuate stereotypes of racial inferiority.

Scene From the American “Tempest.”Punch, Volume 44, January 24, 1863, p. 35

In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the misshapen slave Caliban is promised his freedom by a pair of drunken rogues, Stephano and Trinculo. Although they desire only to use the gullible Caliban to accomplish their own selfish ends, they gain his trust by feigning friendship and equality. In Act III, Scene 2, they gleefully plot with him to take vengeance on his master, Prospero, by destroying his property, murdering him, and ravishing his daughter.

Many in the South feared that newly emancipated slaves would violently turn upon their erstwhile masters. Apparently these fears were also shared by some in England. Here, Lincoln stands in for Stephano and Trinculo, handing a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation to a slave and giving tacit approval to the black man’s desire to take revenge upon his former oppressor.



Perhaps “startling” would be a bit of an exaggeration today, but a production like this would still be considered mildly innovative indicating that we haven’t evolved much out of our old traditions…

March 1970: Student teachers, Dereck Tapper and Scilla Nicholls in a rehearsal for a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at St Luke’s Teacher Training College in Exeter. The mixed-race casting was considered a startling innovation at the time. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)