Friday, February 24, 2012
White People Black Stories Goes Back in Time: Little Black Sambo, It's Your Turn
When I started this series for Black History Month, I really wanted to highlight a trend of White people who, for better or worse, have garnered fame by telling the stories of Black people. Why? I guess it was my attempt to show that the concept of Black History Month, a month to celebrate and acknowledge the accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans is not, or rather, should not be a 'Black thing.' Because clearly Black people's lives, legends and heroics are fair game for all people to witness and benefit from. We don't own our contributions. We don't even own our culture. But should we get credit it for it? Should we charge a fee when it's borrowed without acknowledgement? I don't know the answers to these questions, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't ask. Right?
So, back to my list. Today, we're talking about Helen Bannerman. Who? The Scottish author who will forever be known as the woman who wrote the book, Little Black Sambo. Even though Bannerman penned several other children's books, her 'greatest' legacy is Sambo. Now, it would be so easy to just post Bannerman's name, include a picture of the rather offensive cover of the original Sambo book and allow you to tsk tsk at Bannerman's obvious racist attitudes. But I can't do that. Because as with all things racial in nature, it's complicated.
First of all, Bannerman wrote Little Black Sambo while she was living in India and claimed the story is about a little Indian boy who outwits a band of hungry tigers. Indeed, there are nods to Indian culture and India itself in the text, but seriously, Sambo looks like a Negro. And she called him Little 'Black' Sambo, not Little Indian Sambo. What's more, by the time Bannerman wrote this book in 1899, the term Sambo was already considered a Black and/or slave name, so you kind of have to wonder about Bannerman's motives. She says she was writing a book to amuse her daughters and she probably was, but she might have thought using derogatory language and pictures was amusing.
And then of course Sambo took on a life of his own in the United States and around the world, gaining momentum as a racist little figure. But interestingly, many Black people remember hearing the story of Little Black Sambo and loving the fact finally there was a story about a smart little Black kid who becomes a hero at the end of the tale. Who cares that a White lady wrote the book in India?
What do you know about Little Black Sambo? Did you know anything about the author? What do you think of the story now?