LITTLE BLACK SAMBO
(If you want to retell any of the stories listed below, be sure
to obtain permission from the copyright holder if the material
is not in the public domain)
Query: I wondered if any have you have read "Sam and the Tigers" which is suppose to be (I haven't yet read it) an updated version of "Little Black Sambo". I would appreciate anyone's thoughts on the similarities, differences or just comments in general. I know I can find an online copy of "Little Black Sambo" - is anyone aware of an online text copy of "Sam and the Tigers"?
1) This is a topic which comes up from time to time, here and elsewhere.
I am a big fan of Lester's, I read his "There Once Was a Slave", about Frederick Douglass, one of those series biographies for young people, when I was a kid, and it moved me to the core, I liked it as well as Heinlein, Baum, and Carroll, which is saying a hell of a lot.
I don't think he has the last word on Little Black Sambo. I think you would have to start with love, and I don't think he did. Too many words, for one thing. And it is very writerly, the oral quality is largely gone. (Though there is a very loud "voice.")
Jim Maroon, who used to be on this list, and whose presence I continue to miss (he feared no-one; I was never worried about being considered a pain in the butt while he was posting, because he would cheerfully go much further than me) once posted a telling version of LBS he did in a mixed-race elementary school in Texas. Too bad we don't have a searchable archive. It wasn't the last word either, but it was very good indeed, much better than Lester's-- more in touch with what is classic about Bannerman's story, and much less crufty, though still with plenty of (storytellish, rather than writerly) original touches. And no racial issue at all, as far as I can remember.
Part of the problem here is purely American. If you say "Black Sambo" to an American, they will think of an American black stereotype, a minstrel show character. People who like that kind of thing will find the book more enjoyable because of that association, bad cess to them, and people who are offended by that kind of thing mayl get blood in their eyes and have a hard time seeing what's in front of them.
To begin with, it's an English book, set in India, not an American book set in Africa. The brits could certainly be as nasty about the Indian "blacks" as Americans about Africans, and the name "Sambo" together with the parents, Mumbo and Jumbo, and the fact that the story is set in a jungle, certainly reflect a stereotypical "jungle-bunny" frame of mind. But the names are musical when you say them together, like a Lear poem, and the bit of poison that is in them is the only way that mindset is manifested in the language of the book.
This intrinsic real problem was compounded when the old book was reissued in the fifties as a little golden book, with American-style "coon" images throughout.
But the old book is totally charming. We will never be able to say "Mumbo and Jumbo and Little Black Sambo" alas, during my lifetime, because that beautiful language is infected with poison, but the rest of the words are (as Conrad says) perfect. And the old original color illustrations are lovely and amusing. (Though there may still be, for adults, some unpleasantness associated with the colorful garb, turbans and umbrellas and so forth. for children it is just nonsensical.) The one of the tiger with the slippers on his ears is especially nice, and should be part of anybody's mental furniture, like the Duchess and the flamingos in Alice.
2) This is why we celebrate the story each Martin Luther King day at breakfast with tiger pancakes and tiger butter. We have done this for years as I want my daughter to know the dangers of censorship and the greater dangers of intolerance. Being offended is something we all should be able to put up with if there is no harsh threat behind the words. We all take our turn and maybe we laugh but if we do so together with each taking their turn the world can be a better place. So let everyone have their own turn and make sure everyone has their own turn.
Read the original!
3) Thanks, Tim. I was going to point out that it is British story written about India. But ya know, once folks have an image in their minds, it doesn't matter how often they hear the truth. I agree that the British seem to have been as poor in their attitude of the Indians as Americans have been of blacks, yet, the guys I work with seem to hold no resentment of the British.
A side note to that - it's funny one of the bigger cultural stumbling blocks we have is not US/India but American English vs. British English. They were so sure that they spoke the same language as us! :)
And to return to your message, I agree about the image of the slippers on the tiger's ears. One of my fond childhood pictures.
4) For anyone not familiar with the story "Little Black Sambo" as well as the story "The Story of Little Black Mingo" can be found at:
5) There is a fairly new version of Little Black Sambo that I am very impressed with - newer than Lester's retelling - illustrated by Christopher Bing (Handprint Books, 2003, ISBN: 1929766556). It goes a long way to demonstrate how much of the problems people have with the story arise from the illustrations associated with Bannerman's text. Bing keeps Bannerman's original words, adds some commentary in the end papers to historicize and contextualize the story (_without_ intruding on the story itself, remarkably) and creates joyous new illustrations that to my eyes, at least, lack the racism of the earlier editions. I still do have problems with the stigma associated with the name Sambo itself, which is very racially charged in American history. I do not really know how those who objected to the earlier versions have responded to this one, but I think this new version makes a real contribution and is definitely worth looking at, although it is not likely to be without controversy.
web page updated 3/27/05)