Friday, January 30, 2009

Little Black Sambo -- Then and Now

Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
illustrated by Bonnie and Bill Rutherford

Western Publishing Company, 1961

I loved this book when I was a kid. As an adult I learned that it's been banned in some places and is considered to be controversial because of racial slurs involving the names of the characters. Apparently the word "sambo" is considered a racial slur in some countries. Furthermore, some versions of the book were illustrated in a caricature fashion that brought racial slurs to African Americans in the US and from that the story fell out of favor. You can read more about the controversy surrounding this book here.

What I loved about the story was how smart the little boy was in convincing the tigers to accept his new clothing items rather than eating him. The very best part of the story, though, is when the tigers begin to fight over the clothing and chase each other around the tree "so fast that you couldn't see their legs at all."

"And they still ran faster and faster and faster, till they all just melted away, and there was nothing left but a great big pool of melted butter (or "ghee" as it is called in India) round the foot of the tree."

Black Mumbo, the little boy's mother, makes pancakes for supper and uses the tiger ghee which makes the pancakes tiger striped.

"And Black Mumbo ate twenty-seven pancakes, and Black Jumbo ate fifty-five, but Little Black Sambo ate a hundred and sixty-nine, because he was so hungry!"

You can read the entire book here.

A few years ago I picked up a new "modern" copy of Little Black Sambo which suggested a PC angle based on the title if nothing else.

By Helen Bannerman, Illustrated by Valeria Petrone
Random House, 2004

The title page offers this note:

Helen Bannerman, an Englishwoman who lived in India for thirty years, made up The Story of Little Black Sambo for her two daughters on a long train ride in 1899. For this edition of Bannerman's story, the little boy and his parents have been given new names.

The illustrations just seem rather simple in a boring way and lack the charm of the book I loved as a child. The one of the tigers is pretty similar though, and in this image you can see them turning into ghi (as it's spelled in this version). The characters' names are: Ramita (mother), Kapaali (father), and Little Rajani. I think the updated names are a nice touch.


Eric said...

This is the edition I had, too! even though I grew up in the '80s... Being as the illustrations don't reflect the original gollywog style, and I was too young to conflate South Asians with black folks anyway, I was somewhat surprised, years later, to realize that many people found the story offensive... Having no context, I thought nothing of "Black Mumbo," because names like "Mumbo" and "Jumbo" fit well in a children's book.... I guess the new names are OK, even though I'm no fan of revisionism, but the spectacularly unimaginative renaming is the worst. title. ever.

TDVMAAT said...

Oh I could kick myself for having gotten rid of all my 'kiddie' books when I was still a child! Oh well, it's wonderful to have found your blog and this book in particular (which I of course, had!). I owned the same LGB you've got posted up top, and I adored the illustrations.

Deb said...

I've been trying to find the one I had as a kid. the one you have here, with the tigers circling the isn't the smae as the one I had, either, but close. Do you know who did the illustrations for the one we both seem to recall?

Anonymous said...

I'm 56 years old and I still have the Little Black Sambo book my dad bought for me when I was 5!! It has several stories of the adventures of Sambo and the illustrations are beautiful. My grandchildren love the stories and don't see anything more than a wonderful, smart little boy who lives in Africa. For them, it's magical.

Gladlylearn said...

I loved this book as a little girl in about 1945. The family was loving and the pancakes were delicious. Any implied racism went completely over my head. I associated it mostly with my Grampa who cooked pancakes every Sunday morning. The illustration that I remember was the melting tigers racing around the tree. At that time I had no idea about Africa or India, but I have learned that the original version was set in India. There are no tigers in Africa!

thumbelina said...

That's so refreshing to hear! I'm 65 and loved this book as a child!

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