Is Little Black Sambo Racist

It appears to be a matter of opinion.

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Illustration by Gustaf Tenggren

Children latch on to a favorite picture book and badger their parents to read the story over and over again. They nostalgically carry their fondness for the book through their childhood and into adulthood and look forward to reading it to their children. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman fulfilled that developmental pre-reading stage for generations of children, starting with the first edition in 1889.

Sambo’s Restaurant

In 1957, Sam Battistone Sr. and Newell Bohnett opened a restaurant in Santa Barbara, California, called Sambo’s, a name derived from the entrepreneurs’ names. Before long, the restaurant became associated with the story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman. Sam and Bo, recognizing a capitalistic opportunity, began decorating the restaurants' walls with scenes from the book. These scenes depicted a dark-skinned Indian boy, tigers and a pale man called the Tree Friend, riding a magical unicycle. The original restaurant is still in operation today.

This is Censorship

By the late 1970s, many Caucasian, adult, baby boomers, found their favorite childhood book, Little Black Sambo, being ripped off library shelves at the request of African Americans who declared it offensive; not only that, they wanted to toss the book’s namesake, Sambo’s Restaurant, into the fire with it. This is censorship! Why are American institutions folding to such a request? What’s so racist about Little Black Sambo? Cried the white boomers. They truly did not understand what the fuss was all about.

African Americans Weigh In

In 1932, Langston Hughes, an African American writer, declared Little Black Sambo a typical “pickaninny” book, which was hurtful to black children.

The word Sambo means many different things worldwide, but in America, it evolved into a derogatory term for an African American slave content with his lot in life.

Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a noted professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, commented on a sanitized version of the book which retained the original title:

I don’t see how I can get past the title and what it means. It would be like . . . trying to do ‘Little Black Darky’ and saying, As long as I fix up the character, so he doesn’t look like a darky on the plantation, it’s OK.

Harriet Washington, an African American author, had this to say:

How lovely that we are being treated to not one but two insulting racial tales. Why is this still being sold? Maybe they can package these two with Main Kampf, as a triple feature. This is racist trash, and I find myself alternately appalled and amused by the bizarrely arrogant defense of such insulting tripe, brimming with racial slander. These sentiments are quite revealing.

The illustrations of the Americanized Little Black Sambo compounded injury further by the caricature of Sambo, which grew out of minstrel shows from the 19th century and early 20th century. The shows starred white people in blackface with flashy multicolored clothing, bare feet, and grossly exaggerated protruding eyes, enormous lips, and inky-dark skin.

I personally never saw those illustrations. The book I had as a child was the Little Golden Book posted at the beginning of this article.

Caucasian Reviewers on Amazon

The reviews of the sanitized Little Black Sambo books on Amazon garner quite a bit of criticism. Most reviewers recall fondly of reading the book as a child and include it among their favorite. They don’t know what all the racist talk is about. Like me, they see a little boy who outsmarted the tigers and got to eat many pancakes. He was a hero in their eyes:

  • I ran 2 independent bookstores some 12 to 14 years ago, and when I finally found THE STORY OF LITTLE BLACK SAMBO in print again, I’d order maybe 60 copies a week and could not keep this wonderful little storybook in stock. Almost every buyer were grandparents who could not wait to introduce their grandchildren to a book we all knew and loved. It is a must-have for all collectors of wonderful literature!
  • This was one of my favorite books as a child. I thought we owned it because we borrowed it so much from the library. Once I had a family, I was really disappointed that the book wasn’t available to purchase.
  • I was soooo thrilled to find it here for the Kindle! Includes all the original pictures, too! It’s a fun little story with bright colors and a silly ending.

A British reviewer on Amazon had this to say about Little Black Sambo:

The ardent hunters of racism might like to know the origin of the name Sambo. It arose in Lancashire, England, when an unnamed African slave boy died only a few days after arrival. The anti-racist locals felt deep sorrow for the boy and clubbed together for the funeral. They didn’t know his name, so they coined the name Sambo. It was not a racist name because it was generated out of love. His tombstone, which can still be seen today, carries an antiracist message that people should not be judged on the colour of their skin.

Not all African Americans find the book offensive.

  • I was given this book as a child. Sambo was my hero because he outwitted the tiger; I still love pancakes. As an African American grand-parent, I feel no offense. It is more about bullies, no matter what color.
  • I suppose the US government and the Census would classify us as a mixed-race household, but my children, wife, and I are only reminded of it (and offended by it) when we come across the increasingly rare person who can’t get past thinking of people first and foremost as colors, rather than using color only to help in a person’s description, as is the case with the characters and narrative in this book…And our children love it, this is a top pick when they choose a book themselves. We’ve never had any “black” or “white” questions from any of our kids from reading it. They simply want Sambo to beat those tigers, get his clothes back, and eat those pancakes! My wife and I couldn’t agree more that fortitude, perseverance, and a little luck, and our children’s resulting laughter and joy, are the only ideas that are advanced with this marvelous story.
  • My Aunt worked as a domestic for a Jewish household, and they would give her their children’s discarded playthings to take to her nephews. Little Black Sambo was among the offerings… I have mammy salt and pepper shakers, cookie jars, etc. As a Black man in America, I want to remember and cherish the past. If I find the version of this book I had as a child in which Sambo was jet black with white eyes and huge red lips, I’d add it to my collection in a heartbeat!

This Writer’s Take on Little Black Sambo

I was surprised to see Little Black Sambo being sold on Amazon. I didn’t get to read my favorite picture book to my own children. In reality, the book was never actually banned. It was removed through political pressure. Libraries pulled it off the shelves, and book publishers quit publishing it.

Should Institutions and businesses have folded to the demands of African Americans to remove the book? Not in my opinion. That would be like removing all printed material, photographs, and movies of the holocaust as if it never happened. We do not evolve as human beings by denying our history.

When I asked an African American friend how she felt about the book, she responded:

Honestly, I don’t remember reading the book. But when I was growing up, if you weren’t black and called somebody Sambo, you’d probably get the crap beat out of you. I haven’t heard about Sambo in a while. I had forgotten it until you brought it up.

It’s a complicated problem. Perhaps publishing Helen Bannerman’s book with the original illustrations is the answer. But then, African Americans are still left with the name Sambo. As noted by the Amazon reviews, people of all races enjoyed reading Little Black Sambo.

So, is Little Black Sambo racist? Two cliches come to mind:

Art is in the eyes of the beholder, and you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

A free spirit, visual artist, writer, animal lover, introvert and independent woman.

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