Little Black Sambo Discussion from Child-Lit Listserv in November, 1997

From: Linnea Hendrickson

Perry, I think you are absolutely right about the unconscious bias, and that this is the most pernicious kind. We are all almost certainly biased and prejudiced about various things that only some later generation will be able to see, no matter how hard we try to be fair. BUT, and it seems to me that this is the hard question, does this mean we are to condemn the story of LBS to oblivion or to simply recognize the biases that underlie the story in terms of the time in which it was written? As you say, we hope we have moved beyond Bannerman's world. Are we to throw out LBS and if so, what about the rest of the world's literature which offends someone and furthermore continues to perpetuate stereoptyical views of men, women, Catholics, Jews, children, the handicapped, and everyone else who was "other" to the writers and readers of this literature?

I, as a child reader, felt only admiration for Little Black Sambo, for his ability to outwit the tigers, and envy for his beautiful clothes -- I am still secretly longing for a pair of purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings with magnificent turned up pointed toes (any one selling such may e-mail me directly) -- and having all the pancakes I could eat was one of life's great pleasures. So, was I guilty of unconscious prejudice for liking this story? Are my children developing stereotypes because I shared this story with them? In my case, my knowledge of and acquaintance with Black people came much later and from much different, and sometimes much more harmful sources of information and misinformation than my knowledge of LBS. For my children, I don't think the story had any relevance in their minds to their Black friends and acquaintances. So, my question on LBS is, should it be condemned or can we accept the story as a product of a time that we have moved beyond and again see it as "charming?" The one problem I see being that in the world at large we unfortunately may not yet have moved beyond racism.

From: Jim Maroon

A lot has been said about this book, but I have seen few who have seen fit to defend it. Those of you who have been members of this list for a length of time already know how I feel about it, but just to weigh in once again... I like Little Black Sambo, and I make no apologies for it. It was one of the first stories I recall hearing as a child, and it was one of the first books I bought for my youngest daughter, with Bannerman's original illustrations. I do not think it is a racist book, nor do I think it was meant to be racist. I think the scholars who have been cited have a read a LOT into it that isn't there, and they are reading it with adult, somewhat biased, eyes. There must be some reason why this book survived for children so many years, why one generation after another love it in spite of all the political effort to silence it. It is a good, sweet story about a clever little boy with whom children of all races identify. I think children often know what is best for them better than we, and that includes books like Indian In the Cupboard, Little House On the Prairie, The Secret Garden, and all the others we are questioning in this discussion. If we insist on continuing to view these works through 1995 jaded political eyes, we will have to boot anything older than 20 or 30 years. I purchased this book for one of the library systems for which I worked, some 20 copies, and it was among the most popular books in the library. I noticed a number of people who checked it out were African American. I never received a single complaint.

I find it most interesting that some of the names I see attacking this book were among those who attacked the desires of folks of religious right who wanted to see books that reflected their views included on library shelves. It is more than a bit ironic that these same names complained that morality was being shoved down their throats. Who is doing the shoving now?

From: Barbara Goldenhersh

Reading all the recent thoughtful messages (I was gone for 10 days and plowed through 387) made me wonder if we needed to read some of those books which we now see to have contained racist, sexist, etc. aspects in order to be the thinking adults we are. I certainly did not see the problems in the books when I was a child (and I was a voracious reader) but was always very aware of any intolerance I saw or heard. I fought such prejudice where ever I found it. Did those stories help me to become more observant as a witness to life? Was there an unconscious acknowledgement of what I read which provided me with an understanding I would not have otherwise developed? Will children develop such consciousness if we create politically correct book lists or must they read the materials and use the knowledge to define their own understandings of the world?

From: Shirley A. Tastad

I have followed several episodes of Little Black Sambo on Childlit, but Jim Maroon's comments prompted me to reply this time. I, too, loved the cleverness of LBS as a child, and I loved his beautiful clothes (my version pictured him from India). A few years ago when I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, the esteemed Jackie Torrance came to be the featured speaker (and master storyteller) for the U. W. Storytelling Conference. It was my "job" to entertain her and tend to her needs. What a wonderful experience! During one all conference session, Jackie talked about how our views change depending on the political climate. She told how a young African American man had "discovered" this wonderful story for her to tell--you guessed it, Little Black Sambo!

From Julius Lester

I have been following the thread about Little Black Sambo and morality and literature with some interest as there was a similiar thread on the Usenet group rec.arts.childrens.books last fall. It is surprising the extent of the emotion aroused by LBS almost a hundred years after its publication (1899). Obviously it is held in deep affection by a lot of people who want to reconcile their affection for the memories evoked by the book and their present-day assessment of it. And I think that might be possible.

Many people who have participated in this discussion have expressed shame and embarrassment that they liked the book as children but can see now what they could not see then. Well, first of all, as children books are a source of entertainment. If a story is not entertaining, it is of no interest to children. LBS is an entertaining story. It's a fun story and there is no shame in that. More important, and perhaps central as to why participants in this discussion missed the racism in the book as children is because they had no reason to identify with the main character. Little Black Sambo was not them. He was different. He was other. When I read LBS as a child, I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he. Even as I sit here and write the feelings of shame, embarrassment and hurt come back. And there was a bit of confusion because I liked the story and I especially liked all those pancakes, but the illustrations exaggerated the racial features society had made it clear to me represented my racial inferiority - the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red portruding lips. I did not feel good about myself as a black child looking at those pictures. So, it is not surprising that a white child looking at the book would not be so affected. Now, whether that white child took away negative attitudes about blacks is the question, and from what I've read in this discussion, it would seem people did not. It seems that the racism in the drawings simply did not affect anyone. And I don't doubt that. I also thinks it makes a difference if the book is read to a child or if the child sees the illustrations. If read only, the only possible racism is the names. Sambo has been used as a pejorative to describe black men for many decades and the use probably is taken from the book. Which would indicate that Little Black Sambo does represent negative stereotyping of blacks. Is the book racist? In context, yes. LBS was written at the end of the 19th century at the time when Social Darwinism was the leading social philosophy. Social Darwinism says there is a hierarchy of races representing the evolution of humanity along the lines of Darwin's evolution of species. It is during this period that the leading universities engage in measuring the skulls of blacks and whites and Indians and on the basis of skull size and capacity determine the place of each on the evolutionary chain. LBS appears during the time when racism is rampant and informs colonial and imperialistic policies of the U.S., German, French and English governments.

Is LBS *maliciously* racist? Not at all. It is a product of its times and as such, is rather benign. Bannerman does not use dialect and malapropisms. She does not deliberately or even consciously ridicule Little Black Sambo. In fact, there is a tension in the story between the illustrations and the story line. In the story line LBS is quite a wonderful character. The illustrations tend toward stereotypes. What is interesting is that Bannerman did a series of stories about Little Black Sambo. There are five additional stories, in fact, and the illustrations in these deemphasize Sambo's blackness. He is almost depicted as a little white boy with dark skin. I don't know if LBS is the problem now that it was in the forties when I was a child. Then, LBS was about the only children's book in which I could see myself. That is not so any longer. As long as LBS is one book among all the others depicting blacks, what's to be afraid of? As for all those who feel guilty in retrospect -- there is no need to. We are all bound by the culture in which we live. Our culture roots us and limits us simultaneously. And cultures change and what was acceptable at one time is less acceptable at another. That does not mean the previous acceptance was wrong. We didn't know then what we know now. However, I would be hesitant to assert, as someone did, that his daughter was exposed to LBS and there is not the "slightest tinge of racism in her little body." Racism is not a quality of existence; it is attitudes and it is acts. Racism is not only malevolent and crude; it is also expressed innocently and unconsciously, without malice aforethought. Each and every one of us is capable of expressing racism, despite our best intentions. Sometimes we make ourselves appear absurd in our earnest efforts not to say or do or think anything that might even remotely appear to be racist. As absurd as we sometimes may appear to "get it right", I think I prefer that to the certainty that one or one's child is free of racism. I hope it is clear that I am not attacking anyone, nor anyone's child. It is just that I get very nervous when a white person tells me they aren't racist. After all, why did they assume I might think they were?

One final thought: We are living in an age when we no longer share assumptions about what it means to be human. In the classroom I find myself confronted by women students who complain if there are no books by women on the syllabus, or not an equal number, by black students who say white authors have no relevance to them, by gay students who object to reading about heterosexual relations. Perhaps some of our salvation from this kind of madness will come when we regain that attitude we had as children: "Wow! That was a good book. I really enjoyed it!"

"Why, dear?"

"I don't know. Just did."

We don't always need to justify what we like or don't like. Sometimes "just did" is justification enough.

From: Sharyn November

Thank you, Julius Lester! Thanks, that is, for reminding us all about the simplest response to a wonderful book: "I just liked it." (That, as someone recently remarked, is the reason why children do not review books for the Sunday TIMES.) Of course it's good to know WHY you like something. And it's important to read a range of writers -- male, female, hundreds of years old, written last year, etc. It is dangerous to confine oneself to one's own milieu. I would certainly not want to read only books about Jews from Long Island! (I don't think anyone on this listserv would.)

There is a place for the intellectualization of our likes and dislikes. One hopes that it happens after we know how we FEEL about what we read. Otherwise, we are machines.

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