Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Slavery and the Idea of the "Sambo" slave

Slavery is a prominent topic found in Mark Twain's works. Relations between the colored and the whites occupy many stories authored by Twain, like in "A True Story".  Twain uses "Aunt Rachel" to portray a long known stereotype of the Sambo slave.  The sambo slave is depicted as a person who is submissive, faithful, superstitious, childlike and content; however, this portrayal may be just the outward persona a slave takes on, either to prevent a master's suspicion of any funny business (escape/ rebellion plans- like Nat Turner) or harsher punishment (beatings or labor).  The white masters came up with this idea of the "sambo" slave to provide a justistification for the enslavement of blacks.  The justisitification goes as follows, the blacks can't fend for themselves, therefore, the white masters must be the parent of the childlike slave, by creating a paternalistic relationship between the master and slave.  This ideal of the "sambo" slave, that the white master thought was reality, was in fact, not reality at all but, an illusion put forth by the cunning slaves to mislead their true intentions and character's.

I found that Aunt Rachel in "A True Story" illustates the characteristics of the sambo slave, when she was"sitting respectfully below our level, on the steps" and when she was never heard sigh and always had a laugh in her eye (Twain, 95).  She wasn't planning a huge rebellion or escape, but Aunt Rachel put on a front that she was perfectly content and submissive, albeit this story was set in the post-civil war era.  Maybe "Misto C" held fast to the inherited "sambo" slave figure, when he thought that Aunt Rachel had no trials or tribulations in her lifetime.  Maybe Misto C had thought that Aunt Rachel was just content, submissive, and happy to be serving the white folk, or maybe that's just what Aunt Rachel wanted him to believe and think, like most "sambo" slaves did.  But of course, this is all speculation of Misto C's mindset.  Was Aunt Rachel playing the part of the "sambo" slave?  Or was Misto C just an ignorant idiot who didn't pay attention to details (emotions)?  Or was Misto C oblivious to the fact that Aunt Rachel had deep human emotions- which also begs to the ask if Misto C regarded blacks as fellow human beings? 

We may never know the answers to these questions solely based on "A True Story", but it doesn't help to wonder about what Twain wanted us to contemplate about the slavery era and race relations between coloreds and whites.


  1. Very interesting. When I read this story, I actually thought of it as a happy story. Not the entire story as a whole, but at least the end when she is reunited with her son. But, I do think your thoughts on the "sambo" slave are correct about "A True Story." I feel that Aunt Rachel almost tells the story in a condescending tone.. Almost if she were talking to a child.

  2. I think that you bring up great points about Aunt Rachel and whether she was just playing a role and if she was truly content being a slave. When I first read this story, I thought that it was happy in the sense that she got to see her son again. However, once I thought about it a little bit more, I realized how heartbreaking the story really is. Her son said he was going to come get her when he became a free man. However, her son had been a free man making money long before they ended up meeting once again. I think that even though Aunt Rachel doesn't show much of her emotions (except for the happy ones) that Misto C still didn't realize the life that she had endured. I believe that throughout the story Aunt Rachel does an excellent job acting out the story through the way that she moves, and that maybe near the end of the story Misto C starts to see her as more of a human being because he has now had the opportunity to be looked down upon and feel like she had felt her whole life, but I think it is because she addresses Misto C in a more child-like manner.