Monday, March 20, 2006


Last week I found a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Story Book from the 1950's and picked it up because I vaguely remembered reading somewhere that the book is worth $40-50. I brought it home and looked it up and sure enough that's what it's worth. And then I found out why: because it contains the story Little Black Sambo.

A few days later I found two Child Craft books from the 1950's at that same thrift shop. I picked them up because the night before I had read that Child Craft books before the 1980's are worth something, even if you don't have a complete set. I brought them home and found out some sellers were selling copies of volume 3, Experience Stories and Animal Friends, for $10 but two sellers were selling it for more than $40. And then I found out why: because it contains the story Little Black Sambo.

I was born in the 1960's and, to my knowledge, had never been exposed to this story until last week. I have since learned that controversy swirls around this story, even today.

In1898 Helen Bannerman wrote this story to amuse her daughters during a two hour train ride in India. Her husband was an officer in the British army and they were stationed in India for 30 years. On the surface the story appears to be innocuous and engaging. An African boy in India sacrifices his purple shoes, red coat and blue trousers to the tigers. He outwits predators and returns safely home to eat 169 pancakes.

The illustrations, however, are wild and exaggerate racial stereotypes. This is the illustration from the cover of the 1899 book:

Sam- is a common prefix for names in India but Sambo had negative connotations in the west. For both white and African American children, Little Black Sambo was too often the first black child that they encountered in picture books.

In 2003 Handspring published a 40 page reprint of Little Black Sambo with new illustrations by Christopher Bing. The publisher said on the Handspring website, "It is my hope that a child who encounters the present volume will come to learn the complex history and dark shadows with which this story has been fraught from the first, because in the truth that history so often reveals lies a fuller understanding of our culture and our blind spots."

Dr. Alvin Puissant, head of the African Studies department at Harvard in 2003, was not at all pleased with this reprint: "I don't see how I can get past the title and what it means. It would be like...trying to do 'Little Black Darky' and saying 'As long as I fix up the character so he doesn't look like a darky on a plantation, then it's OK.'"

Another Harvard scholar, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Chair of Afro-American Studies, had a completely different reaction. He was so impressed with Christopher Bing's illustrations that he referred Bing to his own agent, who in turn referred him to Handspring. According Handspring, Bing felt that "to simply recast the figure of Sambo as an Indian child wrenched the story out of the cultural context in which it been understood by an American readership for over a century. Therefore, his Sambo is a glorious and unabashedly African child, who runs through a richly detailed Indian setting, a fluidity of culture and geography possible only in the genre to which this tale ultimately belongs: true and marvelous fantasy. Bing said, "I would love for the black community to be able to take this image and this original story and make it a positive."

I suppose this isn't the last controversial book I will stumble across as a bookseller. Maybe the next one I'll find is a first edition of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye in fine condition. I can but hope.

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Blogger Mimi said...

My grandmother had a copy of that book when I was little. There was also a restaurant chain that make pancakes (when I look back at that, YIKES)

Anyway, interesting history.

10:40 AM  

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