Thursday, October 1, 2009

REVIEW: Little Black Sambo

Bannerman, H.  (1921).  Little Black Sambo.  Bedford, MA:  Applewood Books.


Once upon the time (AKA as recently as the 1970s), Little Black Sambo was considered a wonderful example of international literature and was a recommended read.  Within the last few decades there's been backlash to that perspective and Little Black Sambo has become the go-to example of stereotypical and offensive depictions of black characters in children's literature.

PLOT SUMMARY:  Sambo is a young boy whose mother and father have bought/made him a nice new outfit.  When he wears it for the first time, several tigers bully Sambo into giving them all of his clothes.  Afraid to go home in only his loin cloth (I kid you not) and face his parents, Sambo faces the tigers to regain his outfit.

 The fact that Sambo's supposed blackness is a part of his official name--Little Black Sambo--makes me more than a little uncomfortable.  This is magnified by the official definitions of the term "Sambo."  My dear friend, the OED, provides two meanings:

1.  "Applied in America and Asia to persons of various degrees of mixed Negro and Indian or European blood; also, a name for a kind of yellow monkey."

2.  "A nickname for a Negro.  Now used only as a term of abuse.  Also with reference to the appearance or subservient mentality held to be typical of the black American slave."

Ugh.  And if that's not enough, the illustrations make me much more uncomfortable about the idea of sharing this with wee little children:

Some far from fair representations here...


Stereotypical and negative depictions of black people.  This book is ranked as 90 on the top 100 list of the most challenged books of the 1990s.


Part of the conflict surrounding this book is the uncertainty of the setting.  Some educators believe the book was originally intended to be set in India (where Bannerman had been traveling when she came up with the idea for the book).  If that's the case, then the depiction of of Sambo and his family as black is out of place, giving readers motive to say, "What the heck is going on here?"

Others believe Little Black Sambo is intended to be perceived as a fantasy story, set in an imagined land.  While this does explain the talking tigers (you mean, some people don't accept that tigers talk in this land?  I know the tigers at my local zoo speak to me), it still doesn't explain the far from fear depictions of Sambo and his family:

So, is it possible to say the illustrations are the source of classifying this book as presenting a VERY negative depiction of black people?  I'd say yes.  But what are your thoughts?

I know a handful of older adults who are in love with this book.  For them, it brings back fond childhood memories.  But then, they're also white.

I'm not saying ban this book.  This book is a part of our cultural past.  Ignoring that causes its own problems.  But I do think, if shared, a teacher needs to provide a lot of context and scaffolding when sharing Little Black Sambo.


Personally, I wouldn't use this in a classroom unless said classroom was filled with undergraduates.  In which case, I'd be addressing issues of book challenges and stereotypes as I'm doing now.  The book also lends itself to discussing how ideology is always woven into a text and operates as understood assumptions and are often only noticed when ideology has shifted to a new idea or understanding of the subject.

I suppose, I would consider pairing Little Black Sambo with Julius Lester's version of the story:  Sam and the Tigers.  In which case, I'd present the books as an example of changing a story and would present students with the opportunity to change a work of fiction or a story from their own lives that they would have liked to be presented differently.

If a teacher HAD to use this book, it could be used to help identify articles of clothing.


"Once upon a time there was a little black boy, and his name was Little Black Sambo."

"Oh!  Please, Mr. Tiger, don't eat me up, and I'll give you my beautiful little Red Coat."

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