Oprah Winfrey made her first public statement about the Trayvon Martin verdict yesterday. When I heard it I was extremely disappointed in this icon of American TV. I felt she had betrayed her better intelligence in favor of a bias one-sided argument that I didn’t understand. Then, I took a journey back to my young adult years and remembered one of my all time favorite phrases. You don’t know what you don’t know.
The Queen of daytime TV talk shows said that she saw the Trayvon Martin case as being synonymous with Emmett Tillman. Tillman was a 14-year-old black boy who was murdered in 1955 by a pair of racist white assholes who took offense to the precocious boy whistling at a white woman. His death was not justifiable then, now or ever. It was abhorrent and it was one of the ignition switches to the Civil Rights Movement. A movement that thankfully changed this country for the better, for everyone, and made it so that racism was the exception and not the rule. But Trayvon Martin was killed because he attacked a man and was beating him up. It makes no difference whether you think George Zimmerman was right or wrong for following the Florida teen. The evidence showed the questionable following of the teen and the subsequent fight and shooting were essentially two different incidents. And while closely timed together; they were two different incidents. I couldn’t believe Oprah with all her demonstrated wisdom couldn’t see this.
Then I remembered, you don’t know what you don’t know.
In 1985 I was a student at the Ron Bailie School of Broadcast. This is where I met my wife of the past 26 years; my black beautiful wife. At the school we learned all kinds of aspects of radio broadcasting and some TV. We learned to write news copy, to announce news copy; to write commercials, and to be creative and bold in our voice work.
At the school in the commercial writing and producing segment of the curricula I had developed a fictional radio character I named, Bueno Mike. Bueno Mike was an English Explorer; not unlike David Livingstone of Stanley and Livingstone lore. Though he was exaggerated and a caricature. He was a joke.
We had fun at school. And we had fun playing with and inventing our characters…our commercial characters. I appreciated the help of my future wife and others at the school who seemed to be truly entertained by Bueno Mike and the various scenarios I put him in, in the radio spots I produced. But it all came to an end when I announced an idea and exposed that which I didn’t know.
I decided my Bueno Mike character needed an assistant, an aide, a sherpa. I decided Bueno Mike needed Sambo. My fictitious aide to my fictitious British Explorer would be a young boy of color and I would name him Sambo. I was thinking of the childhood story Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, written in 1899, in which a smart Indian boy outwits some tigers and churns them into butter. I was also thinking of the now defunct restaurant chain of the same name which used the Little Black Sambo images in its promotion and restaurant decor.
I wasn’t thinking of the term being racist, derogatory, or offensive to my future wife and other people of color. It was 1985 and I was 21 years old. I didn’t have a clue that the term, Sambo, was offensive in any way. When it was pointed out to me that it was, I thought how could it be, there was a Sambo’s restaurant on 116th St. in Bellevue my home town. I couldn’t understand. Needless to say, when I enthusiastically announced my plans to give Bueno Mike his little Sambo aide, my future wife was livid. She couldn’t believe I would be so insensitive and offensive. And she was angry. And she didn’t hide that anger. In turn I was angry because I couldn’t understand why she was so angry at me. And I became defensive.
An older black woman named Shirley was a member of our broadcast school class. She worked as a bartender. She was a fun, and wily old woman. She said she was going to the broadcast school to complete some unfinished schooling from her youth. She had no hope or expectation that it would turn into any kind of career. If it weren’t for her my wife and I may never have been married. She heard all the ruckus between my future wife and myself. When we turned to her for her point of view she gently laughed…at me mostly (I think)…and kindly, calmly pointed out to my lovely girlfriend that I meant no harm and that Sambo was very commonly used even though it was offensive and always had been. Sambo as a fictional character depicting people of color in a subservient, or slave position dates back to the 18th century. Sambo was a character in Vanity Fair of 1847 by Thackeray and in Harriet Beacher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom‘s Cabin in 1852. But I swear I didn’t know any of this at the time.
Twenty-eight years later it seems incredible to you, the reader, and even to me the author, that I was oblivious to the fact that Sambo was offensive to black people. But how many of you knew there were over 11-hundred Sambo’s restaurants in the United States that didn’t close there doors until 1983? Many of those restaurant locations were sold to another restaurant chain known as Denny’s.
You don’t know what you don’t know. And when it comes to race in this country; I think it’s abundantly evident we don’t know much.
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