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In Marek Hłasko's The Graveyard (set in communist-occupied Poland) there is a scene where, in a political party meeting one of the party members (Nowak) is forced to change the name of his dog. This change is met with uproar from the rest of the members and Nowak is forced to change the name of the dog to "Red." I am wondering about the context of why this is such an unsuitable name for a dog. From searching it up, it seems it has historically been a racial slur, although that explanation doesn't seem to fit this scenario. Here is an excerpt from the scene:

Someone cried out: "Comrade Nowak has an Airedale terrier called Sambo. I ask you, why Sambo? We must put a stop to this, once and for all."

Franciszek recognized the voice of the young Blizniaczek.

"That should be in the ad lib motions," people cried. "The ad lib motions!"

"Why wait?" other cried. "Such things must be settled at once. One day it's Sambo, and the next day—what? Throwing napalm bombs on Korean children maybe?"

"More vigilance, comrades!"

"Disgusting!"

"Sambo! Why not Bombo?"

"So that's where you get your inspirtation, Nowak?"

"Put a stop to all this!"

"There was starvations, there was misery, there was capitalism..."

"Hand in your party card!"

As The Graveyard was written as an attack on the authoritarian control of the communist party, I can see how this may just be a commentary on the absurdity of scrutinizing such a name. For example where it says "So this is where you get your inspiration, Nowak?" it is in reference to "Sambo" sounding like "Bombo", which is ridiculous, so maybe that's the point. Although that doesn't seem right to me. Any insights? Thank you.

note: Slur removed from title; it isn't possible to ask the question without discussing the word, so it has been left in context. This question is asked in the interests of scholarship and understanding, not in an attempt to belittle any individual or group

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    What was the name of the dog in the original Polish version? Was it the same or was "Sambo" just the choice of the translator?
    – Steve Bird
    Mar 16, 2023 at 7:03
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    why would a racial slur ever not be an unsuitable name...? Mar 16, 2023 at 13:22
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    Although obscure, I suspect those who are the victim of this slur are more likely to be aware of, sensitive to , and feel unwelcomed by the use of that slur.
    – MCW
    Mar 16, 2023 at 15:59
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    In the U.S. some decades ago, "Little Black Sambo" was a grossly caricatured cartoon-story character... and has obvious racist connotations. Mar 16, 2023 at 16:28
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    @SteveBird In the original Polish version, the dog's name is "Samba", not "Sambo". And no, it is not racist.
    – Yasskier
    Mar 17, 2023 at 0:24

5 Answers 5

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As a Pole, I'm confused by all the comments trying to find a racial angle here. I don't recognize either the original name "Samba" or its translation "Sambo" as a racist slur, and I'm confident that most Poles wouldn't. Not only that, but this kind of racism wasn't much of a topic in a country with almost no black people (though racism against Jews was; the stance of the Communist authorities varied from making speeches condemning antisemitism in 1956 to using Jews as a scapegoat and pressuring them to emigrate in 1968).

My reading of this scene is that the dog's name "sounds foreign" to the people in the meeting, and this is enough to cast suspicion that its owner sympathizes with foreign powers. The jump to bombings is intentionally ridiculous in order to satirize the conditions in Poland under Stalin:

  • The demonization of anything that seems Western or capitalist. This doesn't always make sense from today's perspective, but you have to keep in mind that most Poles back then didn't know English and couldn't get an accurate picture of life in the West.

  • An atmosphere of constant fear and suspicion. Even a casual comment that you preferred life before Communism could get you interrogated and, in extreme cases, "disappeared" (i.e. secretly taken to a remote location and killed there).

  • Politically active people trying to outdo one another in dogmatism and enthusiasm in order to gain favor with the higher-ups, as well as deflect suspicions of disloyalty.

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    It's a modernism to consider Little Black Sambo a racist character. He was a little boy that went on adventures who happened to be black. He was drawn in the style of the time of black skin, red lips and white eyes which is now regarded as racist but was not racist back then. Such depictions of black people also occurred in Tintin and Asterix comics and of course Black Peter from the Netherlands. Just people looking to take offense at something. Mar 21, 2023 at 13:01
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    +1. This answer, I think, is the closest to the truth: The period of 1948-1953 (and, from what I understand, the book is set in that time period) in the Eastern block was the one of a rabid anti-western campaign (not just in politics but in culture), hence, everything that even remotely sounded "western" would be objectionable to "faithful" communist party members. Mar 22, 2023 at 0:38
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In the original, Polish version, the dog's name is "Samba", not "Sambo"

Samba is a lively dance of Afro-Brazilian origin in 2/4(2 by 4) time danced to samba music. The term "samba" originally referred to any of several Latin duet dances with origins from the Congo and Angola [...] There is actually a set of dances, rather than a single dance, that define the Samba dancing scene in Brazil; however, no one dance can be claimed with certainty as the "original" Samba style. Besides Brazilian Samba, a major style of Samba is ballroom Samba, which differs significantly.

So no, it is not a racist slur of any way, but for "simple workers" it does sound "foreign" and "Western" (and it doesn't matter was Brazil, Congo or Angola at that stage supporting USA or USSR). On top of that, samba dance is quite expressive and often provocative (it is sometimes called as "the dance of lovers"), so it could even more be perceived as a "rotten fruit from the filthy West".

Yes, it all sounds very... well… flimsy, but such is the nature of this book, which shows that in a totalitarian state everything and everyone is under constant suspicion - the main character's huge problems start, when after drinking a bit too much he slurs at some passer-by "I'm not drunk, you all are!", which unfortunately is heard by militia and treated as an "offence to the People's militia and the Party".

It is also worth to mention, as @njuffa pointed, that in the original text the word "Samba" is mention in the context of "bomba" (a bomb in Polish), while in the English translation we have respectively "Sambo" and "Bambo" - both of those words can be used as a racist slur (the former apparently from a cartoon, the latter from an old Polish nursery rhyme), but they would be pretty hard to spot. In the end, the name of the dog and what is suggests doesn't matter - what is important, is that someone in power has found it suspicious.

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  • If it wasn't for the fact that Cmentarze was published already in 1958, I would point out the worldwide popularity Samba got from the 1959 film Orfeo Negro by Marcel Camus. But probably the fact that a European director takes up a Brazilean musical speaks for the allure the Rio street carneval had already in these years.
    – ccprog
    Mar 17, 2023 at 0:04
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    A phrase could be treated as offensive because of context and implication? The more the world changes, the more it stays the same.
    – david
    Mar 17, 2023 at 3:07
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    +1 for consulting the original text which I would suggest quoting. Google snippets give me: Nim jednak stojący już Gierwatowski zdążył pozbierać myśli i przemówić , ktoś z sali wykrzyknął : - Towarzysz Nowak ma erdelteriera , który się nazywa „Samba" . Pytam się : dlaczego „Samba“? Z tym trze- ba raz nareszcie skończyć . Google Translation of it: However, before Gierwatowski, already standing, had time to gather his thoughts and speak, someone from the room exclaimed: - Comrade Nowak has an Erdelterrier, whose name is "Samba". I ask: why "Samba"? It's time to end this once and for all.
    – njuffa
    Mar 17, 2023 at 9:04
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    The English translation quoted in the question is apparently due to Norbert Guterman, a literary translator who was born in Poland and moved to the US in 1933. Given that he must have been quite familiar with American culture by the time he translated Hłasko's story in 1959, I find it difficult to understand why he thought switching from Samba + bomba [=bomb] in the original to Sambo + Bombo in the translation was reasonable, given that it introduces a completely different perspective into this naming controversy.
    – njuffa
    Mar 17, 2023 at 10:11
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    Yes, as simple as this. Mar 17, 2023 at 12:52
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Edit: apparently it's 'Samba' in the Polish original - the English translator changed it to the racial slur. It's plausible the translator's intent was what I described below

As you mentioned, this is a racial slur.

As in all great power struggles, the Soviets employed tu quoque arguments against criticism of human rights abuses in their country. The Soviets really went to town on it though.

See 'and you are lynching Negroes'.

The word 'Sambo' apparently only appears in the English translation. The reason for this presentation of the argument is:

  1. it would be awkward for the Communist states, who were pretending to care about racism in the USA, to permit racial slurs in its own country

  2. the translator apparently thought his Western readers would agree that applying a racial slur to a dog was trivial, and that anyone saying they cared about it was probably a hypocrite. As far as the Soviets were concerned, they weren't wrong.

Most people in the west thought that lynching was bad, but were unable to grasp the connection between dehumanising racial slurs and more extreme acts like lynching. They didn't understand that lots of acts like the former will lead to the latter. Watch the film Dambusters if you want to see a particularly egregious example of Western casual racism roughly in the period that the novel was written.

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    "was pretending to care about racisim" I think undersells things by quite a bit. One of the precepts of Communism was always equality of men (and women) worldwide. It not only went hand-in-glove with their internationalist approach to politics, but it was one of the philosophy's main selling points abroad. This is why it had special appeal among historically oppressed people in places like Africa, Asia, and African-American communities in the US. So from that context you can see why a party official doing something overtly racist would be viewed as a threat to the party.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 16, 2023 at 13:12
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    I concede that Soviet anti racist rhetoric is more complex than I presented it. Just didn't want anyone to think that I was trying to take their side.
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 16, 2023 at 13:44
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    It is a quite outdated racial slur. I doubt that you would hear it very often. Not because people are nicer, less racist, or more politically correct, just because it is so old-fashioned.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 16, 2023 at 15:50
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    I very much doubt the racial slur was meant. I am not Polish, just Czech, and I did not live at the time, but I had to look it up. It is not widely known in these areas at all. The corpus search can find it in some translations of western books, but that's about it. Different cultural areas have different racial slurs. Mar 17, 2023 at 12:46
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    @VladimirFГероямслава - I highly suspect the dude heard the term, had a black dog, and though it was cute. We Americans often jokingly use words that would be highly offensive in the UK but mean little to nothing to us, to make fun of Brits. (See the entire Austin Powers movie series). I've seen recent immigrants here go through a similar stage where they have to learn the hard way which words are too offensive to use unless you really know what you're doing. Personally, I think it was that kind of thing; it didn't seem off to him, because where he's from it was just another English word.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 17, 2023 at 13:23
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Previous answers don't sufficient make analytical use of the meeting space being a Party or Party Controlled meeting (Hand in your party card, Comrade). This answer attempts to supplement that lack of use.

The theme of Totalitarian Control over the Polish Communist Party is interesting. Despite many people believing that "Communist" parties controlled the fraternal states in Central Europe they didn't. The Polska Partia Robotnicza was a communist party which merged with the PPS to form the PZPR in 1948, as a result of the Soviet party purging the PPR.

Poland had a long local tradition of revolutionary nationalist and left politics dating from the 19th century. Poland was part of the Russian and German revolutions in 1916-1923, and ended up with a local nationalist state. The communist movement in Poland ended with a Moscow aligned interwar party, which was miniscule and poorly represented actual workers movements for communism. As is true in a lot of central europe the social-democratic party in the form of the PPS ended up being significantly communist, in the sense of having a fraction of workers who desired self-liberation under workers control. During WW2 the membership who would become the PPR didn't know (as in they had a massive faction fight) about whether Poland ought to become a member state of the USSR or not.

Actual Polish communism as of 1947 is spread across the PPR (with multiple factions), factions in the PPS (both Moscow aligned and working class aligned), and self-organisation amongst workers whether formally aligned with the PPS PPR both neither or formally aligned but not actually taking the party seriously. Being a communist is complex.

The book, therefore, is making fun of lower middle class intelligentsia who have jumped on the winning band wagon and are making useless cultural shitfights over other lower middle class intelligentsia's pathetic choice of dog names from South American "internationalist" culture. Rootless cosmopolitanism was a "theme" in Moscow aligned Communism at the time: basically it was a dog whistle for anti semitism in the Soviet Union. But formally it was an attack on cross-cultural or multi-cultural modernism or futurism, particularly by lower middle class intelligentsia. If you have ever attended a membership meeting of the left you'll be familiar with the prating self-interested interpersonal fights in the book. If you have ever been a right wing local society member (Elks, Rotary, Masons, etc.) you too would be familiar. The narrative voice is being attacked for no good reason, by a policy that the attackers do not understand, where the formal ideological justification is emergent Soviet anti-semitism, and none of them are involved in the actual struggles of who will control Polish society. None of these people are '56ers, factory embedded, etc.

From a theoretical, or historiographical, perspective this is the way that day to day nomenklatura society organises the divisions of spoils, following Sheila Fitzpatrick on every day stalinism in the nomenklatura. I've read accounts of similar meetings in Yugoslav, Soviet, Hungarian governing party local membership groups. I've read similar meetings in lower middle class white collar local party membership groups in the west. I've seen similar purity politics play out in lower middle class organisations of the left. Part of the joke, left unspoken, is that working class communists don't have this problem set: purity politics don't matter when the issue is to get a supervisor's arm ripped off "by accident" in the lathe; purity politics don't matter when you're trying to keep the surface and air viral load low because the bosses don't give a shit. Part of this sequence is an attack on the middle class nature of Polish Communist politics as the author saw them.

Bibliography

  • Ðilas (Soviet, Yugoslav)
  • Fitzpatrick (Australian take on the Soviet Situation)
  • Hammer and Sickle and the Washing Up (Australian party life)
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    I agree with your interpretation but nit with your criticism of the "other answers", except for the first one. I was about te remind also the bans of jazz (and later rock'n roll) music and similar, but I only know the Czechoslovak side. Mar 18, 2023 at 5:00
  • I didn't mean to criticise, only to observe the gap, am trying to edit to express my original desire, not what I went and bloody wrote. @VladimirFГероямслава Mar 21, 2023 at 8:02
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Sambo (racial term):

Sambo is a derogatory label for a person of African descent in the English language. Historically, it is a name in American English derived from a Spanish term for a person of African and Native American ancestry. After the Civil War, during the Jim Crow era and beyond, the term was used in conversation, print advertising and household items as a pejorative descriptor for Black people. The term is now considered offensive in American and British English.

When used in a narrow sense Sambo (descendant of black and native American) is opposed to Métis (a descendant of native American and White) and Mulatto (descendant of white and black). There is more refined classification of the second generation descendants - the terms were likely popularized in the Soviet block by translations of books by Fenimore Cooper, Mayne Reid, and similar writers.

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  • @RichardHardy thanks, it was a typo.
    – Roger V.
    Mar 19, 2023 at 12:57

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