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The Bad Cannon-The Story of Little Black Sambo

Helen Bannerman's illustrations in Little Black Sambo are the touchiest subject surrounding the book. She must have seen in only two colors, those being “me” and “darker than me” because Little Black Sambo and his family are black, but the story takes...
March 23, 2011, 12:56pm

The Story of Little Black Sambo is famous among the baby boomers as a book that many of them enjoyed as children and are now ashamed to have enjoyed because it's overtly racist. I read it expecting a cavalcade of stereotypes, like a slow-talking magic man making Little Black Sambo sing and dance for his dinner, but the story wasn't quite that racist, at least in that way. Instead, it is a story about a black family who inexplicably lives in India, and how the son outsmarts some tigers. The illustrations are hugely racist, as are the characters' names, but the actual plot is relatively benign, except for a ferociously misguided mixing of cultures that shouldn't even exist in fantasy.

The story was written by Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman who found herself bored in India on a train. Instead of turning her situation into Adrian Brody's last good film before he started to shill as a perverted lounge singer for Stella Artois, she wrote a fairy tale for her daughters. Mrs. Bannerman must have seen in only two colors, those being “me” and “darker than me” because Little Black Sambo and his family are black, but the story takes place in India.

The history of the illustrations is the touchiest subject surrounding the book. Bannerman drew some doozies for the original incarnation, and subsequent illustrations were even worse, with a mammy-type mother and lazy father, though the father's only part in the story involves him coming back from work, so obviously the original story wasn't racist enough for some of the illustrators. There's also a current version with some culturally sensitive art, and a couple of re-writes of the story that completely work around its sticky history. What I don't quite understand is the dedication to the story in the first place. There are plenty of children's books to fondly remember, and the climax of this one is some tigers forming a rat king with their tails and then spinning around so fast they turn into butter. That's pretty fucked up. It seems to me that there are far better stories out there to dedicate time and energy to re-illustrate and re-create. Though, if offered, I would definitely eat tiger butter.

Obviously the illustrations aren't the only upsetting part of the book, as its title includes a racial slur. Little Black Sambo's parent's names are Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo, so their names didn't escape Big White Bannerman's racial insensitivities unscathed. In all, it's a book I'm glad my grandparents opted to let fall out of bedtime story rotation, and I think it would be best if everyone followed their lead.

The story ends with the family sitting around and enjoying huge stacks of pancakes, a food about as native to India as Little Black Sambo himself. It struck me as a little bizarre that Bannerman took the time to explain the word for butter is “ghee,” so she was obviously at least remotely familiar with Indian food. As I thought about it more I realized she wrote the story because she was homesick, which makes the pancakes even more ridiculous. Bannerman was likely under intestinal distress as a tea and crumpets swilling woman exploring India, and while imagining her with a nasty case of diarrhea doesn't make up for her efforts to insidiously permeate children's bedrooms with odious stereotypes, it does make it a little better. I can't remember any discussion of bowel problems in any of the Kipling I've read, but now I have to wonder if that's part of why he was so prolific. To be fair, I haven't read that much of his work. Maybe Disney just left the diarrhea part out of the Jungle Book movie.

Bannerman wrote many other books, about half of which begin with “Little Black.” Her last book was Little White Squibba, which is a re-telling of Little Black Sambo, with a white girl as protagonist. Leave it to Bannerman to end her career of misrepresenting black people in children's literature with the ultimate trump: replacing them with a truly underrepresented literary character, little white girls.