Aside from the drawings, the story itself is very positive, showing a child outwitting wild animals. This little boy is brilliant! He figures out all sorts of really clever ways to save himself from the tigers, who want to eat him. He gives one his beautiful little red coat, another his beautiful little blue trousers, a third gets his beautiful little purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings, and the last one takes his beautiful green umbrella. (It's a colorful book!) But wait! What would a tiger do with two shoes?
And Little Black Sambo went on, and by and by he met another Tiger, and it said to him, "Little Black Sambo, I'm going to eat you up!"Ah, clever young man! Little Black Sambo escapes tiger after tiger and then watches as the tigers argue about which one is the grandest tiger in the jungle. The tigers, in a frenzy, chase each other around a tree in such a blur they turn into butter. Or "ghi," as it is called in India. What a smart little boy! There's no reason this book should be banned.
And Little Black Sambo said, "Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don't eat me up, and I'll give you my beautiful little Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings."
But the Tiger said, "What use would your shoes be to me? I've got four feet, and you've got only two; you haven't got enough shoes for me."
But Little Black Sambo said, "You could wear them on your ears."
"So I could," said the Tiger: "that's a very good idea. Give them to me, and I won't eat you this time."
But let's look at changes to the story over the years. I have a copy of the book from my library with three copyright dates: MCMXXV (1925), MCMXXVIII (1928), and MCMLV (1955). The boy's looks have changed, as you can see in this picture, captioned, "Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don't eat me up." The little blue pants are longer, and the toes of the little purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson lining no longer curl up. But his mother does, even in this version, make pancakes.
And she fried them in the melted butter which the Tigers had made, and they were just as yellow and brown as little Tigers.This version has cute drawings, but something's off about these pictures. When Sambo hides behind "a palm tree" to watch what the tigers do, it is so very obviously NOT a palm tree, as you can see in this illustration. Maybe it's an oak tree, like those we have here in the southern part of the United States, but in no way is it a palm tree. Who made these changes? The artist? The publisher? Why? I have no idea, but this may be the version that seems racist to some. The problem is the drawings, not the story itself, which is STILL about a clever boy who saves his own life from four ferocious tigers. Not a mean feat, you know.
My verdict? Not racist. A Scottish librarian agrees with me. Since she says the book is "one of my childhood favourites," she may even agree with my rating of the book: 10 of 10.
I found "sambo" in the book I just finished reading: The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg (2003 and 2011, that I rated 9/10). Here's the quote about denigrating, unacceptable talk:
"sambo," from Spanish "zambo," meaning a person of mixed Indian and African descent (loc. 4518).