Banned From American Bookshelves: The Story Of Little Black Sambo

Little Black Sambo, I’m going to eat you up!
And Little Black Sambo said, ‘Oh! Please Mr. Tiger, don’t eat me up,
And I’ll give you my beautiful little Red Coat.

from The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

POPULARITY AND FAME

For more than one hundred years, The Story of Little Black Sambo has been a classic of the nursery. It is a beloved tale and was reprinted in untold numbers of editions around the world. There were 30 editions in English alone (not counting reprints and copyright renewals) from 1900 to 1970.  What happened in the 1970’s to cause it to all but disappear from library and bookstore shelves?  Herein lies a story of political correctness and a century of racial discrimination.
It cannot be denied that when examined today there are negative stereotypes of blacks, especially in the illustrations.  But the basic story refuses to disappear, for at least three new versions have appeared just recently.  Little Black Sambo was not alone in being banned in the 1970s.  In 1976, the only censorship case to ever reach the Supreme Court of the United States, Pico vs. IslandTreesSchool District (Long Island) was prompted by the removal of 9 books from the high school library, but those books were subsequently returned to the shelves, albeit with restrictions.
The values taught by The Story of Little Black Sambo are vitally important for the development of children in any society at any time, and LBS (as it will be referred to in the content of this article) is rarely matched in content or style by most other children’s stories, especially those of the late nineteenth century when Helen Bannerman wrote it for her children.  It stresses that bullying and greed (the tigers) accomplish nothing in the long run and that handling anxiety and stress calmly and positively with negotiation (Sambo) wins out in the end.  Those who work with children find that these concepts are invaluable for teaching today’s kids how to deal with their world, with many educational programs being devised recently to do just that.  This is probably why Little Black Sambo, by that or any other name, (Sam or Babaji, names used in modern versions) will continue to survive.
Another of its advantages for the child was its size. The original volume was 24mo and so fit perfectly into the hands of the smallest child.  Subsequent editions were usually not much larger.  The story was exciting, easy to understand, with a repetitive rhythm, action, and a satisfying conclusion, all elements in the best of children’s literature.
From its initial publication, parents liked LBS because the story could be purchased in cheap and colorful editions, first in the “Dumpy” Books by Grant Richards in England, then by publishers such as Stokes, Platt and Munk, Whitman and others in the United States. Librarians extolled it, not only for its virtues of content, but because there wasn’t much available with black child protagonists.  According to Barbara Bader, “ …demeaning pictures of blacks were routine, and a little black hero, in a cracking good story, wasn’t.  Until the 1930s, small black children appeared in picture books almost invariably as buffoons—Topsys without her high spirits or quick mind. Sambo was popular across black America not only in his own right but also by default.”

Sambo appeared in most of the major bibliographies including the ALA Basic Book Collection for Elementary Gradesin the 1950s and the Children’s Catalogin the 1960s.  In the early seventies, Selma Lanes in her book on children’s literature, Down the Rabbit Hole, praised LBS as helping whites “to see black people in a new way.”

Why then would the book suddenly be seen as damaging to children and removed from libraries and bookstores (which in the process made it a valuable commodity for collectors)? Before examining the controversy which erupted in the mid 1970s, let us go back to the late 19th century for a moment and examine its author, who was neither American nor black, but a highly educated, well traveled Scottish mother of four, and a product of her time and environment.

THE AUTHOR

Helen Bannerman was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on February 25, 1863 to a minister of the Free Church of Scotland and his wife, and spent her early years on the island of Madeira off the coast of Spain where her father was stationed.  There, she came into contact with a large African community.  Later her family returned to Scotland where she received a university education, which was rare for a woman of that time.  After she married William Bannerman, a doctor in the Indian Medical Service, she lived in India from the 1890’s to 1917 when they returned to Scotland where she died in 1946.

Her four children spent a good deal of time away from their mother.  In addition to being sent back to Scotland to be educated, they spent summers in the Hindu Kush where it was cooler than in Indian cities.  She wrote and illustrated Story of Little Black Sambo as a gift for her daughters on a train returning from a visit to them.

A friend who was returning to England saw LBS and offered to take it with her and have it published.  Bannerman warned her not to sell the copyright, but when Grant Richards, the publisher, refused to take it unless he could hold the copyright, the friend agreed and sold it to him for a few pounds.  It was published in London in October, 1899 as part of the “Dumpy” series. Then, because it was so popular, it was reprinted in November, 1899, September, 1900 and October, 1900. Frederick A. Stokes in the United States purchased the rights from Grant Richards and published it there in 1900.  Bannerman never received a penny beyond the initial few pounds.  She wrote many more books but never again gave up the copyright!

One of the questions often asked about the story is why it takes place in what appears to be India (tigers, palm trees, ghi, the Indian word for clarified butter) when the characters are stereotypical black Africans. Obviously, Bannerman knew the difference between Africans and Indians having lived in both communities.  Elizabeth Hay, Bannerman’s biographer, feels that “the explanation is that she was writing, not for publication, but for her own daughters.  She wanted to set her story somewhere far away and exotic; she chose an imaginary jungle-land and peopled it with what were to her daughters a far-away kind of people. To have made the setting India would have been too humdrum and familiar for them.  Then, because she had a liking for terrifying tigers, she brought them in as villains.  She was far too good a naturalist not to be aware that tigers are found in India but not in Africa; no matter.  Her jungle-land was an imaginary one, and tigers, which for her were symbolic dragons, were essential to the story.”

THE CONTROVERSY

As popular as LBS seemed to be with librarians, as early as the late 1930s and early 1940s, black librarians were beginning to grumble about its suitability for black children’s image of themselves and how they were viewed by whites, in spite of the fact, as we have seen, that there was a dearth of literature for and about black children.  Two prominent black children’s librarians, Charlemae Rollins at the Chicago Public Library and Augusta Baker, soon to become head of children’s services at New York Public Library raised several issues.  Their concerns covered what they considered objectionable themes and the stereotyped illustrations and names of the characters.

The objectionable themes were the unsanitary use of butter taken from the ground by Black Jumbo after the tigers melt; over bright clothing showing that blacks have an indiscriminate and primitive love for bright colored clothes (red jacket, purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings, etc.); and the number of pancakes that Sambo consumed intimating that blacks have huge appetites.

As far as the illustrations are concerned, besides the comments of Bannerman’s biographer quoted previously to justify her use of Africans in her illustrations, there are other theories to explain why the pictures she drew, and later illustrators embroidered upon, tend toward the grotesque.   Minstrel shows were popular at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, featuring whites in black face with exaggerated lips and eyes.  Another thought is that young Helen Bannerman as a child read Heinrich Hoffmann’s popular moralistic picture book, Der Struwwelpeter that was translated into English from the German by the middle of the 19th century.  One of the stories in the book is about a black-a-moor who goes for a walk with his green umbrella and is teased by three ruffians. The illustration of the black-a-moor is remarkably similar to Sambo, not to mention the coincidence of the green umbrella.

The names Sambo, Mumbo and Jumbo were major concerns to the black librarians, though the name Sambo had been used in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It is actually a word in some African languages, and in Portuguese “Zambo” means mulatto.  Mumbo/Jumbo is the term for a tribal medicine man in Central Africa. However, all three names were greatly in evidence in minstrel shows and had a derogatory connotation to African-Americans.

Through the 1940’s, ‘50s and ‘60s, there were complaints, articles and even congressional hearings (Adam Clayton Powell convened the House Committee on Education and Labor) to examine the depiction of blacks in literature.  Rollins, Baker and other black librarians literally banned the story from the shelves of their libraries and library systems.  Since libraries and the black community stopped buying, publishers stopped printing.  Even though some editions were published with the characters in Indian garb, with all the trappings of a middle class modern household, gradually, Little Black Sambo disappeared from recommended lists and was relegated to historical children’s literature collections.

SAMBO REDUX

But LBS did not stay parked in book collections.  The children of those years before the mid-1970’s grew up, remembered the story and wanted their children to remember it also.   So within the last 9 years, three very different versions, the last in 2003, have been published by major publishers.

In 1996, two versions appeared.  Julius Lester, a well known African-American author of children’s books and college professor who joined the black librarians in condemning LBS in the 1970’s, and Jerry Pinckney an award winning illustrator published Sam and the Tigers (Dial), an attempt to fix Helen Bannerman’s version of LBS so that the stereotypes and other objections are eliminated but the story line is the same.  Bannerman’s prose is not used, and the venue is a place called Sam-sam-samara. However, the protagonists are modern looking African-Americans and the size is small 4to.

The same year, Fred Marcellino published The Story of Little Babaji (HarperCollins).  He uses Bannerman’s words, but the setting is indisputably India and the characters are Babaji (Sambo), Mamaji (Mambo) and Papaji (Jumbo).  There is more of an attempt here to keep the book small as it was.originally printed.  It is 12mo.

In 2003, Christopher Bing, an illustrator specifically used Bannerman’s name as the author of the book and calls it The Story of Little Black Sambo (Handprint Books). He gives a publishing history at the end, sets his version in what looks like India, with Indian parents and a Sambo who looks more African-American.  The names are left as in the original, but it is folio size, gigantic compared to the original!  Interestingly enough, it was nominated for inclusion on the 2004 American Library Association Notable Books list, though it ultimately was not included!  The circle closes!!

SAMBO FOR BOOK COLLECTORS

Any version in almost any condition of LBS before it was banned is valuable today. The Dumpy series edition (first British), and the first American (Stokes), can go for thousands of dollars.  Others are worth hundreds.  Collecting the various versions may be expensive, but the story (if not always the illustrations) is still a precious part of children’s literature in English.

SOURCES

Bader, Barbara. American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. NY: Macmillan, 1976.
Bader, Barbara. Sambo, Babaji and Sam. The Horn Book Magazine, September-October, 1996, 536-547.
Barton, Phyllis Settecase. The Pictus Orbis Sambo: Being a Publishing History, Checklist, and Price Guide for The Story of Little Black Sambo. Sun City, CA: Pictus Orbis Press, 1998.
Hay, Elizabeth. Sambo Sahib: The Story of Little Black Sambo and Helen Bannerman.  Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1981.
Pico, Steven, An Introduction to Censorship, School Library Media Quarterly (ALA), Winter, 1990, 84-87.
Yuill, Phyllis J. Little Black Sambo: A Closer Look. NY: Council on Interracial Books for Children, 1976.

Marjorie Rosenthal