One hundred years of Little Black Sambo

Written by LIE Co-editor Julia

Recently, while wandering around the university where I work, I discovered a publication produced by the university’s library titled “One hundred years of Little Black Sambo.” The publication describes the library’s acquisition of a collection of Little Black Sambo books and ephemera in 2008. The 275-item collection is predominately composed of multiple editions of the famous story, first published in 1899, as well as ephemera such as dolls, jigsaw puzzles, and playing cards. A catalog of the collection includes a treasure trove of photos of the book editions, as well as a few pieces of ephemera. I wish I could share it with you, as the evolution of images–though also repellant at times–is fascinating (see the photo above, from the catalog, for an example), but the publication is not available online. (If you are not familiar with the story, Wikipedia has a synopsis of the plot and a brief biography of the author, Helen Bannerman.) 

What struck me most, though, was an essay on Little Black Sambo by Gerald Early, Merle Kind Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University in St. Louis. In it, he shares this complicated reflection on books like Sambo (note: Early is African American):

“I remember telling a friend once that as a boy my favorite book was Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912). It is hard to find a book that is more rabidly, insanely racist, far more so than Little Black Sambo, which seems liberal by comparison, and as a child I recognized the racism of it. But the book taught me about manliness, courage, standing up for one’s beliefs, resourcfulnees, grace, sacrifice. Reading Tarzan actually made me braver as a kid and enabled me to stand up to bullies in school. I learned the same from superheroes in comic books, even though all the heroes were white. Never underestimate the good to which a child’s imagination can put any book. Yes, literature is political, but it is not only political. It is also about other important things. Children’s literature cannot help but reflect that which is wheat and that which is weed in us. It does not matter how good the intentions of adult writers may be, there will always be ba things in children’s literature for a kid to read, unless authors sprout wings and become angels. After all, as Helen Bannerman once expressed ina letter to her son, artist can do only what they can, not ideally what they want. They are limited by time, place, the prejudices of their day, and their own peculiar frailities as individual human beings. But how else can a child learn about life and literature except through imperfectly conceived, indeed utterly flawed artistic expressions? So, this is the risk we run in having a children’s literature at all and the risk we must bear. For a children’s literature worthy of the name is not without its costs or its potential to do as much harm as good. And we will always be unsure, no matter our moral vehemence, of the nature of the harm or the good.”

This is certainly a different way of regarding books than the perspective I bring to all media as a mother concerned about her child internalizing racism. I mean, racism is out there in the world and there’s no protecting my son from that, but I’ve had no interest in bringing extra home in a book or a video. Tarzan is, for sure, on my banned list, as is Little Black Sambo, but I admit to having warm childhood memories of the latter (I think we had the edition with the yellow cover at the far right of the top row in the photo; I imagine that it was from my mother’s own childhood…) and no associations of it with racism (he didn’t look like the black children at my school, and the ghee and the tigers and the name Sambo made it clear to me that it was set elsewhere, far away. In fact, in my memory, I often mix Sambo up with a Kipling story, which is telling in its own way I suppose…)

I would love to hear your thoughts on Early’s arguments, and about any childhood memories in all their complexity that you have of books like Tarzan and Sambo, and what your “policy” is toward such books now. Where do you stand? And what should we expect of children’s literature?

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