Friday, October 16, 2009

Little Black Sambo ~ by Helen Bannerman, 1899

Little Black Sambo was written by Helen Bannerman, a Scot who lived for 30 years in Madras in southern India. Many people have challenged this book for being racist. But let's look closer. This drawing for the original 1899 edition was made by Helen Bannerman herself. Yes, the boy has dark skin, but remember that this woman spent her life in India. Tigers, which are a major component of this story, are in India. People in India have dark skin. The boy is wearing shoes with curled-up toes. In no way does this book depict racism directed against blacks in the United States.

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!"

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."
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.

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.

Update 11-29-18:
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).


Beth said...

This book is near and dear to my heart because it was the very first book I owned as a child. When I got my tonsils out at age 4, my aunt gave me Little Black Sambo, and I loved it. I'd never had my own book before and I was thrilled. And I LOVED the story. I wish I still had that book. I think I wore it out with reading it over and over. Thanks, Bonnie, for bringing back a very dear memory.

Bannerman Books said...

Useful information like this one must be kept and maintained so I will put this one on my bookmark list! Thanks for this wonderful post and hoping to post more of this!