Had Michael Ray Charles and Sambo been complete strangers, perhaps nothing would have come of their meeting more than 10 years ago. As it was, Sambo's face on a plastic figurine Charles had been given was just familiar and peculiar enough to get him thinking. And reading. And painting.
There was something about that black face with its outlandish lips and big, rolling eyes frozen in perpetual astonishment. Charles says he's not quite been able to shake it, not even after painting it so many times:
Sambo as cartoonish, white-gloved NBA star, dribbling hard down court, trailing a price tag of green dollar signs. A toothy Sambo about to relish a slice of watermelon, or high-stepping and blowing a horn above the caption "WATCH IT!"
One way or another, they're evoking old logos for such actual products as "Darkie Toothpaste" and "Nigger Head Stove Polish." Sambo has functioned as advertising emblem, sure, but more: He's portrait and landscape and also anthem, as American as the Stars and Stripes.
The flag was actually Charles' first idea, as he cast about his studio for some quintessentially American image. He tried painting Old Glory, but found that wasn't quite it. What he eventually found in that little figure's face drew him headlong into a morass of image, emotion and memory, a tour of a particularly American haunted house conducted by Sambo.
"One day it dawned on me," says Charles, one of the artists featured in the Baltimore Museum of Art's current exhibit, Looking Forward/Looking Black. The Sambo figure is "the middle ground between that which is constructed white and that which is constructed black. ... It was a form of `other' constructed by someone who was not black and imposed on people."
The creation of Sambo
One of three artists speaking at a public forum at the BMA this afternoon, Charles was born in 1967 in Lafayette, La. He now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and two children, having established a national following for his provocative pictures.
Sambo was born centuries earlier of white parents, more than likely on an American plantation, his name possibly a corruption of terms in certain West African cultures. In Hausa: sam bo would be "name of a spirit"; in Vai, "to be shameful"; in Mende: "to disgrace." As early as 1693, the ship Margarett unloaded its cargo in St. Mary's County, including, according to original documents quoted in one book, "2 Negrose Sambo and Jack."
It was the dawn of a remarkable career in minstrelsy, radio, TV, cartoons and movies, wherein the persistent white gaze reduced the black man to a happy, lazy, infantile, often infuriating but quite amusing buffoon. In a word, Sambo - the "First Truly American Entertainer," wrote Joseph Boskin, author of Sambo: The Rise & Demise of an American Jester.
Boskin argues that blacks stopped playing the role in the 1960s, since black comedians such as Dick Gregory seized the power of comedy and "the fool became an emancipator." Nonetheless, he says "there should be little doubt that aspects of Sambo live on in the white mind and show through the crevices of American culture in subtle and sophisticated ways."
Charles is interested in those crevices. What peeks through, he says, is sometimes as plain as the movie screen in front of your face.
"Sambo is not dead," Charles says. "The most predominant form of cultural distribution is film" - and black Americans have little power in Hollywood. Film depictions of African-Americans, he says, still suggest more than a bit of the old jovial simpleton. It seems that movie audiences, black and white, "would rather see Jamie Foxx in Booty Call than to see blacks in serious drama."
The artist readily acknowledges that his own hyper Sambo-awareness might be shaping his view of movies, TV spots featuring Michael Jordan or the latest hip-hop video. Whatever he has internalized came from somewhere, however; his artwork is a way of sorting out cultural inheritance.
Charles and the other artists in Looking Forward/Looking Black are considering a number of things at once, not least of which, as a catalog essay notes, is the seam where the self meets society.
Untitled, a 1988 drawing in conte crayon, is Charles' sole contribution to the BMA show. It's an early Sambo, grinning and bug-eyed as ever, this time with a head full of flowers.
This is one of Charles' relatively tame images, or at least one that doesn't strike with so many levels of association that you don't know whether to laugh, wince, squirm or duck. Unlike, say, the blackface Elvis, or the whistling Sambo strolling merrily along while the caption reads "BEWARE."
Charles studied advertising as an undergraduate, and it shows. He's keenly aware of its power and pervasiveness. He also has a gift for making new images that resemble an old poster or commercial package that might have been dug up in grandma's attic.