Saturday, November 28, 2015

On Words, Racism, and Musical Theatre

Hoagie. Po' boy. Grinder. Muffuletta. BLT. Grilled cheese. Sub. Reuben. Club. PB&J. No matter what you call 'em, sandwiches are delicious, and yet another thing we Yanks stole from the British (tasty, tasty thievery).

What does this have to do with the above-mentioned subjects, Leonard??
I'm getting there!  Patience, reader.

The other night, several of my cast mates from my current show and I went out after rehearsal for drinks and snacks.  We went to a new place, directly across the street from our "old place."  The old place has become rather bitchy, sloppy, and put-upon when we try to spend money there; the new place has been very accommodating to performers wanting a late-night bite.

The new joint was jumping and quite loud.  We got a table and were perusing menus whilst waiting for our poor harried server.  One section of the menu listed, "Sandbos, Wraps, and Hot Dogs."  At least three of the six of us asked each other independently, "What's a 'sandbo'?"  There was no explanation on the menu of what made this particular delicacy different from other sandwich configurations.  Was it a combination of a sandwich and a hot dog?  Maybe a sandwich and a kebab?

When our overworked (but still delightfully sweet) server returned, we asked her, practically in unison, "What's a sandbo?"

"It's a sandwich," she said, somewhat deflated.

Nothing special.  Just a sandwich.

We were also disappointed.  "Oh."
"We're going to change it," she said.  "People have been getting offended."
"Offended??  Why?"

What about a sandwich could offend people?  Are those people also offended by fun and tasty goodness?

"Apparently it means something else in other places.  People have, like, thrown down the menus and left."

That is some serious sandwich offensiveness.  We were still puzzled.  What kind of dirty connotation did "sandbo" have elsewhere?  And then it hit me.

"They're thinking of sambo," I said, trying to enunciate clearly to point out the difference (plus, it was still loud).  I even spelled the two words to make my point (again, still loud).  "As in, 'little black Sambo.'  It's a derogatory term for black people."
The waitress looked amazed and then said, "Some of the people who were offended were African-American!"
"They sound similar, so..."
"I'm telling my manager.  He couldn't figure it out either," and off she went.

Now, I could take this moment to say I made this connection because I have a Master's degree in Literature, because I've spent six years teaching English, but that'd be complete and utter bullshit.  I made the connection because of musical theatre -- the musical Hair, to be exact.  The character Hud (who Wikipedia describes as a "militant African-American") sings a song in which he lists nearly all the derogatory terms for people of color out there (at least that were out there around 1967, when Hair was written).  The song's title is actually one of those terms:  "Colored Spade."  I made the connection because I could hear the song in my head when I heard "sandbo" (or "sambo").

Racism is a cultural thing.  It is a learned behavior.  As such, derogatory terms change depending on one's culture, region, language, and geography.  In Indiana, the word "Hoosier" is a good thing if one is a basketball fan.  When I moved to St. Louis, I found that it also meant "white trash" or "redneck," connotations it didn't have growing up in Nebraska and Iowa.  The parents of a high school friend of mine couldn't believe a local news station used the word "spook" when talking about Halloween and "ghosts and goblins."  They were originally from the Pacific Northwest and knew that "spook" was also a derogatory term for black people; my sixteen-year-old self had no idea.  While "sambo" was still prolific in the 1960s, many people today wouldn't recognize it, like our server and her manager.

So thanks, musical theatre and Hair, for the history and language lesson!  By the way, "Colored Spade" is also on my list of "Songs You Can't Sing in Public."  Several songs from Hair are ("Black Boys," "Sodomy") as well as "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and "My Girlfriend Who Lives in Canada" from Avenue Q.  You can find the full lyrics (and learn more racist terms and several Southern delicacies) for the song here.

Wondering why I don't use the term "African-American" myself?  Read this post.

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