Friday, February 24, 2012

White People Black Stories Goes Back in Time: Little Black Sambo, It's Your Turn

Hi Meltingpot Readers,

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?

Happy Friday!


riffraff814 said...

In library school I was introduced to a 'rewrite' of it titled _Little Babaji_. That's the version I read to my kids. The names are Mamaji, Papaji, and Babaji. And the illustrations are more classically Indian (if a bit 'country' rather than 'city'). Other than that, the text has been left alone.

It really helped my mom who *loved* telling the story, but felt like she couldn't because it was inappropriate. (Note for those who don't know me, we are Irish American descendants.)

Jen Marshall Duncan said...

I didn't really know anything about the author, but I did know about the books and the way Sambo images made their way into pop culture. Sambo's used to be a restaurant, too, and had franchises all over the place filled with pictures from the book. I'd thought they were all gone; but then a few years ago I attended a training in Santa Barbara and near my hotel was the original Sambo's restaurant, still open for business and still decorated with images from the books. I was completely flabbergasted that such a place is still in operation. Needless to say, every patron in the place was white (and probably completely oblivious to the insensitive and degrading artwork surrounding them.)

Anonymous said...

When you started this series for Black History Month, I thought you would start with Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin". I first read the novel book as a young girl when a good friend* recommended it. It was our first exposure to the dark side of American history. Despite our shock, my friend and I loved Uncle Tom. What was there not to love? He was a good man despite his circumstances. Imagine my surprise when I came to the U.S. and I found out the negative connotation of "Uncle Tom"...

*That childhood friend (with whom I have lost contact) sent me a Facebook friend request a couple of days ago.


LT said...

I've seen some of the rewrites and it's true, without the offensive photos, the story seems quite harmless.

I thought all of those Sambo restaurants closed. Hmmm

I did consider Uncle Tom's Cabin, but I was kind of sticking with contemporary stories to prove the point that this trend keeps on going. But thanks for reminding us.

MamaB said...

Regarding the use of black vs Indian, I lived in England for a year and was surprised when a friend referred to someone who was Indian as "black".

Anonymous said...

I'm African American and for some reason really loved this book as a very young child. As a kindergartner I always picked this book out at the library when we had free reading. My parents were horrifed. I don't know if I saw something of myself in the image, or if I just thought Sambo was cute. So I have good memories of this book from the days when I was too young and innocent to know better.