Nintendo DS title Scribblenauts has players solve puzzles by writing words. The game has a database of tens of thousands of words — writing words causes objects to appear on screen. So what happens when you write "sambo"?
You get what appears to be a watermelon.
The word "sambo" is in the 22,802 wordlist we posted previously, between "sambhar" and "samboussa". Other racial terms (not just for African-Americans, but all ethnic groups) turned up nothing. The word "slave" produced an old white man in a tuxedo. "WASP" produces a "wasp". It's worth noting that the characters in the game are a diverse bunch, with African-American models used to depict a variety of jobs including ballerina, firefighter and life guard.
"We are not a racist company and we don't make racist games," Scribblenauts creative director Jeremiah Slaczka told Kotaku when reached by phone tonight. He said that there was no racial intent involving the inclusion of the word "sambo," a term he was not immediately familiar with.
Further discounting any impression that there was an racial intent, Slaczka also told Kotaku that one of the people responsible for finding and adding words to the game was black — to be clear, Slaczka, however, is not saying that an African-American put the word "Sambo" in.
Warner Bros. Interactive, the game's publisher, responded to Kotaku's request for comment Thursday:
"We deeply regret the unfortunate oversight that led to the word being included in the game," a company spokesman said. "The word was included as a reference to a Spanish based term for a fig leafed gourd but clearly upon review the word should have been excluded entirely."
Washington State-based developer 5th Cell said in the game the word sambo refers not to the racial term but to the Spanish term for a fig leaf gourd that resembles a watermelon.
Slaczka said that the word was included in Scribblenauts because it is an ingredient of the Ecuadorian dish Fanesca, which is listed, on Wikipedia, as including a "figleaf gourd," or "sambo." A Google image search of the term "figleaf gourd" produces an image that looks like a watermelon. Slaczka said that it is common to use the same image for multiple words in Scribblenauts and that that is the reason a word meant to depict a figleaf gourd appears to be a watermelon.
In the U.S. though, the word "sambo" has been used to demean and degrade Africans and African-Americans alike. "Sambo" was a common slave name in the U.S., and the late 19th century children's book The Story of Little Black Sambo is cited as furthering the word as a slur. While the book was set in southern Indian, it did play on the blackface iconography and African-American intellectuals have been critical of the pickaninny motifs.
Here is the Online Etymology Dictionary's entry for "Sambo":
stereotypical name for male black person (now only derogatory), 1818, Amer.Eng., probably a different word from sambo (1); like many such words (Cuffy, Rastus, etc.) a common personal name among U.S. blacks in the slavery days (first attested 1704 in Boston), probably from an African source, cf. Foulah sambo "uncle," or a similar Hausa word meaning "second son." Used without conscious racism or contempt until circa World War II. When the word fell from polite usage, collateral casualties included the enormously popular children's book "The Story of Little Black Sambo" (by Helen Bannerman), which actually is about an East Indian child, and the Sambo's Restaurant chain, a U.S. pancake-specialty joint originally opened in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1957 (the name supposedly from a merging of the names of the founders, Sam Battistone and Newell "Bo" Bohnett, but the chain's decor and advertising leaned heavily on the book), which once counted 1,200 units coast-to-coast. Civil rights agitation against it began in 1970s and the chain collapsed, though the original restaurant still is open. Many of the defunct restaurants were taken over by rival Denny's.
"person of mixed blood in America and Asia," 1748, perhaps from Sp. zambo "bandy-legged," probably from L. scambus "bow-legged," from Gk. skambos. Used variously in different regions to indicate some mixture of African, European, and Indian blood; common senses were "child of black and Indian parentage" and "offspring of a black and a mulatto."
However, included in the loaded "Sambo" term are things like blackface and other tropes like unkempt hair and watermelons — tropes used to degrade and oppress African-Americans into simple, comical characters. In short, to dehumanize and objectify. From the post-Civil War era, food items like fried chicken and watermelon were used to stereotype "darky" African-Americans. The popular culture depiction of African-Americans during the late 19th and early 20th century was stuffing their faces with watermelons and gnawing on fried chicken.
There was even a New Jersey brand of watermelon called "Sambo brand".
The watermelon images and "sambo" slurs reduced African-Americans to two-diminsional characters. Similar sambo and watermelon imagery have been used by those unhappy with President Obama. As The Chicago Sun-Times' Mary Mitchell writes, "The smiling "darkey" eating watermelon was a popular image during America's racist past, and was the one of the stereotypes used by Obama-haters during the presidential campaign."
Both "sambo" and the image of a watermelon carry the baggage of the American experience regarding racism. There is a connection between them. A long, painful and oppressive one.
Stephen Totilo and Brian Crecente contributed to this report.