Righting the Wrongs: Can Little Black Sambo be fixed?
Butter. Pancakes. Purple shoes with crimson linings. What's not to like? Quite a bit, actually in Helen Bannerman's 1899 picture book about a little boy who uses his fabulous wardrobe to turn a dangerous situation into a delicious feast. Little Black Sambo is a book that has been seen as so desirable that it was illegally reprinted all over the world and yet so incredibly offensive that it has been removed from libraries and then recreated and republished in a more sensitive manner several times. Why not just leave it in the past? What about this story has impacted us as a culture that we feel the need to reclaim it and make it into something else that doesn't hurt us?
The story is culturally inaccurate and the early editions rely on highly offensive images of Sambo and his family. While clearly set in India (the locale for tigers and ghee), Sambo is an ugly caricature of someone of African descent. Is the narrative itself offensive? No, it's a story about a child who is able to outsmart dangerous tigers and eats a ton of pancakes with his family in celebration.
Early criticisms of the book that surprisingly did not object to Sambo's appearance included commentary from two prominent African-American librarians; Charlemae Rollins from the Chicago Public Library and Augusta Baker, soon to become head of children's services at the New York Public Library objected to "unsanitary use of butter taken from the ground" (pancakes were cooked in this butter, created from the tigers chasing one another in a circle until they melted into butter). The depiction of brightly colored clothing was also a sore spot, the implication being that blacks have a "primitive love for bright colored clothes." A third issue was the enormous number of pancakes consumed (Black Mumbo ate 27, Black Jumbo ate 55, and Little Black Sambo ate 169), which intimated that blacks had huge appetites.
Some of the reclaimed versions, like Fred Marcellino's 1996 version (HarperCollins) change the setting and race of the characters to make the story line up with an Indian backdrop. The Story of Little Babaji was well-received and made a break with the past associations by dropping Sambo's name in favor of an Indian identity.
Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney did a beautiful job with Sam and the Tigers in 1996 (Dial), but opted to make Sam African-American in their version. The setting is an imaginary place called Sam-sam-sa-mara, where animals and people "lived and worked together like they didn't know they weren't supposed to." In Jerry Pinkney's forward, he says that Little Black Sambo was the only picture book with a black child that he remember seeing when he was a kid. When he discovered that there were as many as fifty versions of the book, he felt the urge to "right the wrongs." Pinkney found his research to be "liberating."
The idea that instead of walking away from the images that cause us so much pain and damage, we can take control of them and create something beautiful is indeed liberating. Painful images are still being published in books, as we have seen with A Fine Dessert (2015, Schwartz & Wade) and A Birthday Cake for George Washington (2016, Scholastic). Because of social media, immediate discourse occurs and all voices have the opportunity to be heard. Opinions are far from unanimous on these topics, but the fact that the white white world of publishing can be called out by those who take issue with racial depictions in children's literature is significantly more gratifying than waiting the nearly 100 years it took for Little Black Sambo to be righted.
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
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