SAMBO STEREOTYPE The Sambo stereotype of African American slaves and, by extension, of modern African Americans is that American blacks are by nature servile, fawning, cringing, docile, irresponsible, lazy, humble, dependent, prone to lying and stealing, grinningly happy and basically infantile. In other words, the conception of Sambo is that of a perpetual child incapable of maturity, sitting, grinning and eating in a watermelon patch.
It cannot be denied that some modern blacks (as well as some modern non-blacks) possess some or all of these personality characteristics. To assume, however, that the modern African American per se is a Sambo would be an absurd distortion of reality. On the other hand, the question of whether African American slaves fit the Sambo description is debatable. One school of thought accepts the Sambo-type personality as being characteristic of most southern slaves. Historian Stanley Elkins, for example, maintains that proud and noble West Africans may have been transformed into childlike creatures by a harsh process of brainwashing not entirely dissimilar to the Nazi brainwashing techniques in Jewish concentration camps during the 1930's and 1940's. Elkins assumes "that there were elements in the very structure of the plantation system — its 'closed' character — that could sustain infantilism as a normal feature of behavior."
Another school of thought argues that although plantation slaves may have acted Sambo-like, they were merely playing a role dictated by the sheer helplessness of their situation. "There is no reason to conclude," according to historian John Hope Franklin, "that the personality of the slave was permanently impaired by his engaging in duplicity in the slave-master relationship. It must be remembered that some of the actions of the slave were superficial and were for the purpose of misleading his owner regarding his true feelings." It is argued that the many forms of slave resistance, including occasional conspiracies to revolt, clearly indicate that the typical plantation slave was not by nature a Sambo. See also: SLAVE RESISTANCE.