“SLAVES WERE AUCTIONED OFF the week of February 21, during noon. The student body bid . . . with the highest bidder getting the person for their slave on the assigned day . . . This was the 2nd year the student council held this money raiser, which made over 1,000 dollars this year.” So read the 1978 yearbook feature describing “Sambo Service Day” at St. John’s High School, Delphos, Ohio. Photo captions identified images of grinning White students who had “won” one of their peers, and others who were consigned to servitude. One of the latter group had adorned his shirt with masking tape that read, “Ain’t I Cute?” The story text noted that “wearing signs is one way masters let people know who their slave is.” Making a mockery of slavery was apparently a new annual event at the parochial school, one in which the word “Sambo” stood for African Americans.
On the opposite end of the country, in Modesto, California, another all-White student body engaged in the same ritual. Fall at Modesto High School meant the “traditional Slave Day.” In 1979, “each Rally Exec was assigned to a varsity football player, and served as his slave for the day.” Where the Modesto celebration of slavery differed from that in Ohio was in an external connection to Sambo. The teens at St. John’s merely named their event “Sambo Service Day,” but in Modesto, each “slave” took her “master” to breakfast at Sambo’s Restaurant, a West Coast pancake chain. Had these students deliberately chosen Sambo’s as the setting for breakfast because the name and the chain’s branding was ideally matched to an enactment of enslaved Black persons? As will be shown in the pages that follow, Sambo’s Restaurant, which initially launched in California in 1957, was but one of several establishments where racism was integral to the dining concept.
This book examines the ways in which American restaurants have traded on denigrating images of Black people in names, branding, and architecture. The United States has a long history of Black stereotypes being used to sell products, particularly packaged food; the “comic darky” and other images have been concentrated in American culinary ephemera in a way that is not the case in other cultures. Brands such as Uncle Ben’s rice and Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup are familiar to American consumers, but a number of restaurants, unabashed in their mockery of Blackness, have remained largely unknown. From the early twentieth century to the present, restaurants have offered White consumers a dining experience seemingly made that much more appealing by the spice of racism.
Four such restaurants are: Richard’s Restaurant and Slave Market, in Berwyn, Illinois; Sambo’s, originally based in Santa Barbara, California; The Coon Chicken Inn, originally based in Salt Lake City, Utah; and Mammy’s Cupboard, in Natchez, Mississippi. Spanning the country’s geography, social settings, and historical contexts, these restaurants are but a sampling of the numerous establishments that have operated with racist themes. For example, Johnny Weissmuller, star of the Tarzan movies, opened the Jungle Hut Restaurant in the late 1960s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Capitalizing on his silver screen fame, his concept featured “a native African influence in design, décor and food. The menu includes such items as ‘Gorilla Burgers,’ Tiger Taters,’ ‘Gator Dogs’ and ‘Mango Milk Shakes.’” There was also a “Famous Pic-a-Ninny” barbecue restaurant that operated in the near-west suburbs of Chicago, but however successful it had been, the business was sold at a mortgage foreclosure auction in 1939. Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen, which formed a franchise and began building outlets in the summer of 1960, capitalized on the caricature of a jolly and good-tempered mammy, and took it to scale. Aunt Jemima had already been successfully employed to sell pancake flour by suggesting that buyers could obtain the status of the plantation South (including Black labor) in a simple packaged mix; it was a slave in a box. In the restaurant, consumers could enjoy the double benefit of commodified Black stereotypes without having to cook themselves. Thus, the four restaurants examined here are illustrative case studies to explore how independent restaurants and national chains have sold the consumption of Black domination.
Racial formation theory and critical race theory are useful frames for making sense of the meaning behind these restaurants. Michael Omi and Howard Winant argue that racial categories are created and lived through racial projects, which define human bodies, social structures, and their interaction. Always the outgrowth of previous historical conflicts, racial projects are the instruction manual for how everyday experiences ought to be organized around race. They are clearly visible in public policies (e.g., the state should be “color-blind”; Black males are suspect and should be stopped and frisked by police), but they operate in everyday lives as well: “Society is suffused with racial projects, large and small.” Racial projects make “common sense” out of the specific ways in which a racialized society is structured. Indeed, a racist society is itself common sense in the United States. According to critical race theory (CRT), racism is ordinary, not aberrational; it is the way society does business.
Racist restaurants—their genesis and their persistence—constitute a racial project that normalizes racism by centering it in everyday consumption and making it a marketable good. By situating racism at the forefront of a space for children, families, and the pleasures of eating and sociability, racist restaurants seem to dare the citizenry to take up critique. As CRT emphasizes, unconscious feelings motivated by national narratives about race strongly determine how individuals respond to racist cues. Racist marketing has particular resonance in the United States, where mass consumption has for decades been central to American identity and conceptions of a prosperous country. Feeding into this larger racial project are smaller ones, which articulate several premises. The first is that racism does not necessarily pose a threat to society; in some contexts, it’s all in good fun, a harmless joke. Second, racist expressions cannot be racism if Whites take simple pleasure from them. That is, racism is only construed as the expression of virulent hatred; merely enjoying the debasement of Black people falls short of the threshold for which we may levy claims of racism. And third, racism is purported to be no more than individual prejudice and bigoted attitudes, expressed and felt individually, on a case-by-case, ahistorical basis. Taken together, these “mini” racial projects are the building blocks that make possible a segment of the restaurant industry dedicated to antibBlackness. Because racist restaurants serve what CRT theorists would describe as the psychic and material needs of Whites, they have had remarkable longevity—an indication that they ought not be seen as bizarre one-offs but rather as a deeply rooted exemplar of common-sense American racism.