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Elizabeth Kennedy

Controversy about "The Story of Little Black Sambo"

By January 10, 2004

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According to an Associated Press article on Newsday.com, a new version of "The Story of Little Black Sambo" "...has reignited a decades-old debate over the book's racially weighted past." The new edition of Helen Bannerman's 1899 tale was illustrated by Christopher Bing and published by Handprint Books in December, 2003. On the publisher's website you will find a reprint of a thought provoking article from The Boston Globe that sheds further light on the story and its history.

On the one hand, this new edition has been honored as a Kirkus 2003 Editor's Choice; on the other, it has been denounced by some respected cultural historians. There is a helpful essay on the history of the story on the publisher's site. In it, the publisher states, "...in reality, any story must assume life in the context of its history and culture, it will and must resonate in a universe filled with expectations, interests, and prejudices that readers will bring to it. Perhaps for no book does this hold more true than "The Story of Little Black Sambo." If you would like to discuss this topic, join our discussion on the About Children's Books website. recall
October 31, 2006 at 4:45 am
(1) Sydney says:

This was my favorite book when I was little, and remains so until this day! It was not a derogatory book, rather a book about a little boy in India! I don’t know how the context of this story became so blown out of proportion, but I think if it is read as it is meant to be, the reader will better understand it.

October 3, 2007 at 9:34 pm
(2) Gottacamp says:

Why is there so much controversy about a book??? I read this when I was little and was amused by the tales. There is no controversy about the “United Negro College Fund” or other all black orgainizations, but let a white man stand up to be counted and he gets knocked down.

May 3, 2008 at 2:48 pm
(3) jgrabczyk says:

Unfortunately, a certain segment of Americans probably prompted by NAACP and ACLU to ban book around the l950′s as black racism. But, the story was set in 1800′s in INDIA and illustrations all depicted the Indian style dress. TIGERS plagued India till modern times.
No history of Tigers in Africa. Sambo restaurants in America were forced to close/change name. Most Americans that read the story would list “Little Black Sambo” as a favorite story. Delightful and enojoyed by many of us in the 1930′s until the individual books were slowly “hidden” in public libraries back in the 1960′s or so.

July 26, 2008 at 3:12 pm
(4) BarbaraLee says:

As a young child, I LOVED this book! I have been trying to obtain a copy for my granddaughter but the prices are over the top! It is amazing how people are willing to cash in on a book that they find offensive. If it had been titled “Little Sambo” would it have drawn the same contraversy? It takes place in INDIA with tigers. Tigers in Africa–I don,t think so. People have become so sensitive and, “Politically Correct” that we are creating more predjudice instead of ending it!

August 24, 2008 at 7:56 pm
(5) Marilu says:

I am so happy I was able to find the book in 1999. It is a sweet children’s book. How can some people be so ignorant and think that tigers are in Africa. But, those who cooperated with those dummies are just as ignorant to take this book out of cirrculation. This act reminds me of repressed culture in America

October 2, 2008 at 7:45 pm
(6) Jen says:

I have just purchased my own copy of Little Black Sambo. It took me forever to find my childhood favorite with the same illistrators I loved to see, Bonnie & Bill Rutherford. I have never once thought of this book as anything but clever and wonderful. Tiger pancakes?! It doesn’t get better than that.

October 26, 2008 at 11:25 pm
(7) phyllis says:

I have searched and searched for a copy of Little Black Sambo I can afford to share with my granddaughters. I remeber the illustrations be absolutely beautiful. Any help on this would be greatly appreciated.

November 4, 2008 at 11:40 am
(8) Harris says:

Hey ya’ll, ebay or amazon or craigslist is a great place to find the specific versions of this wonderful book that you are looking for. I have been searching myself for a specific version and the only ones I have found have been super expensive. I’ll just hold out and keep looking.

December 13, 2008 at 3:54 am
(9) Joy Williams says:

I have to disagree with some of the posters here.

The original book, which can be viewed at the Gutenberg Project, a project to put on line books that have expired copyright dates, does show an African family and this was illustrated by the author, herself:


The book was originally published, written and illustrated in 1899 by Helen Bannerman, who was a Scot who lived for 30 years in Madras in southern India when she created this book. When you look at it, the original book definitely shows Sambo and his family as stereotyped black people from the southern slave states. Black Mumbo has a kerchief on her head and Black Jumbo wears a clothes typical of black men in the old south, (at least from pictures we have seen). Their features are also exaggerated. There are no Indian people in the original book.

Now all that being said, I see no overtly racist statements in the book, to be honest. The story is of a courageous little boy who has enough savvy to trade off his clothes to prevent being eaten, and then has the the wherewithal to take his clothes back when the tigers get in a tussle about who is the “grandest tiger” in the Jungle, after they’ve taken his clothes. The story shows the tiger’s ego ends up dissolving them into a butter (were it only so simple in real life).
So, unless I’m missing something, (and to the host here, the link to the provocative article in the Boston Globe doesn’t work), I really don’t see any racial disparagement in the story itself.

My suspicion is, that Ms. Bannerman may have had black servants who had a child who lived with her in India. My suspicion is also that she wrote the story for the child to allay his fear of tigers. Tigers are man-kilers in India, and it’s reasonable to be frightened of them (though taking off your clothes is unlikely to help if they are hunting you). But who knows what motivated Bannerman to write this book.

I think that some of the commenters here have read later additions of the book and so don’t know about the original version… It might be good to put a link to it, Ms. Kennedy.


June 11, 2009 at 4:46 pm
(10) Dominique says:

If you had to read that book when you were young and brought up in the 50′s then think how would you feel? When African American people had the media and racist giving them a idenitity instead of being able to create their own! Would you like to be compared to this made up boy? Would you want to have tigers chasing you? There is a much deeper meaning to this book and maybe you need to do your research because this story is awful and needs to be banned just as the rest of the black face era was thank you very much!

August 29, 2009 at 8:55 pm
(11) crochet says:

I agree with the majority here. I had this book when I was little, and I was telling my children about it, so I went to look a copy of it up on the internet and all I get is the polictical B.S. about how bad the book was. Nonsense. People are way too sensitive and yes, how funny that the ones that complain are the ones cashing in this old keep sake.

People seriously need to get some perspective.

September 28, 2009 at 11:46 pm
(12) Geoff says:

In some countries Sambo can be construed as a racist word. The story is great. It doesn’t give anybody an identity. It is fun. I bought it from Barnes and Noble last year. Original pictures and everything. My 2 year old son has me read it to him every night. He calls it the tiger book. It is very nostalgic for me. Nothing racist or derogatory about it.

October 9, 2009 at 3:27 pm
(13) Michelle says:

I remember my grandmother reading this book to me over and over. I remember at one point I would read the words before she could get to them for I loved the simple story about a little boy in the woods eating pancakes

October 24, 2009 at 9:38 am
(14) bullwink says:

This was my all time favorite book when I was growing up in the 50′s. I grew up in a big city and I never heard of it being offensive until a few people who wanted to make a mountain out of a molehole in the 60′s, started this whole fiasco about it being racist. It was and still is a really cute story written for children. It’s the adults that blew it out of porportion. Get over it!

December 1, 2009 at 9:10 pm
(15) Gator says:

I was born in 1964 in central FL. I recall my teachers reading this book to the entire class quite often. I liked it so much my mother bought it for us. It was one of our favorites. It’s no secret how racial people were in the south. But not until around 1982 did I ever hear a negative comment about Sambo! My friends and I, both black and white just dont get it.

January 1, 2010 at 8:27 pm
(16) Rebecca Robertson Whalen says:

My mother bought the little bookat the grocery store. Paid 19 cents in 1962. It was my favorite, I just recently heard about the uproar about the book. There was no racism in our house. Happy to say , I still have it!

March 22, 2010 at 2:41 am
(17) Patricia Long says:

Yes I brought my book in 1973 for my son he read it once and never pick it up again. I have it put away in a plastic bag now. It is lock up. I cant see any thing wrong about it. It tell about a little boy and tigers. We are all the same color in out heart. I cant see why anyone would make a big mess of it

September 27, 2011 at 9:13 pm
(18) Lavana says:

Wow..the way the boy looks, his moms looks, their names..I am glad this book has been banned. If you don’t see anything wrong with this…shame on you.

August 16, 2012 at 1:18 am
(19) Jdean says:

Really book banning? Free country. Freedom of speech. I loved this book when I was little I had the version with the indian boy and in 1978 had no ideal where India was. The point of the story to me was that the tigers were greedy and that they boy was smart. I see the other versions and think that the African American boy and his parents were smart and resourceful as well. Saying that a book banning is warranted in any Country is wrong!

May 2, 2013 at 6:08 pm
(20) Sam says:

…and my name is really “Sam”. The good news is that this book is a work of literary art and it cannot be put into some politicaly correct box never to return again. Its a fabulous tale with wonderful characters and amazing illustrations (original). It also reigns supreme as a snapshot of our culure and our 2013 “state of things”. I own a 1960 hard copy with a orange cover and totally original ilustrations… LOVE IT. I am eager for the day that civilization matures and can appreciate our world history: the good, the bad, and the telling of tales as they were originally intended by the author to be told. Let story tellers tell his and her stories without having to sanitize illustrations or content based on the current insecurties of some folks. It is like asking Mozart to write music BUT avoid using this note and that note and this rhythm and that ryhthm… because someone may associate it to a specific culture – so then what – we cant sing the blues, we cant enjoy classic appalachain music, or refer to a country that is one – under god. This book also represents why censorship is so deadly to the preservation of a culure. 2000 years from now people will view artificats from 2013 and think to themselves…. where is the diversity of humanity because we are erasing it in art every chance we get because it may hurt someones feelings… or offend someone. wow. LOVE THIS BOOK!!

May 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm
(21) Kenneth Hart says:

It was quite a different time back then. I loved the story, I hated the depictions of the black face that had been over exaggerated. The story is fine but the images are racist.

The self aggrandizement of some here is amazing. Who has the right to express how others should feel about anything? It is absolutely ludicrous the way some people think.

It would not surprise me if the same people talking about how others should conduct themselves are the same ones who allow others to disparage another human being because they are different from them. Silence is consent.

February 9, 2014 at 6:59 pm
(22) Pat says:

I have a Little Black Sambo book, it was one of the little Golden Books. It still has the 19 cents sticker on it, the price it was in 1962. It has suffered a little water damage from a flooded basement but still looks great. I still love the book at age 70.

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