Little Black Sambo: A look at the bizarre history of Helen Bannerman's racism-riddled children’s story

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.

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It is always a little disappointing to discover that your favourite childhood story was racist, sexist, casteist, homophobic or a healthy mixture of all these with other problematic -isms thrown in for good measure.

It pains me to admit that there were many stories like this in my childhood and one of them was called ‘Little Brave Sambo’. At least that’s what I thought it was called; its real name was something far worse but we’ll get to that later. This story followed the exploits of Sambo, a young lad who dressed in bold colours, encountered tigers in the jungle, divested himself of said garments to appease said tigers, and then watched the tigers fight over the clothes until they melted into a pool of butter. I am a writer who is profoundly guilty of writing incomprehensible fiction and I have to say, this storyline is completely bonkers, even for me. I don’t really know why I liked ‘Little Brave Sambo’ as a child, I just did. It had tigers in it. And I admired the courage of a boy who wore a red jacket with blue trousers, purple shoes and a green umbrella while strolling through the jungle.

 Little Black Sambo: A look at the bizarre history of Helen Bannermans racism-riddled children’s story

Detail from Little Black Sambo

It was only much later that I learned about the history of this story, which in many ways, is as bizarre as its storyline. The original version was called ‘Little Black Sambo’ — Sambo was actually a Tamil boy and the story was allegedly set in the jungles of South India. What kind of Tamil name is Black Sambo? I don’t know! Anyway, this story was written back in 1898 by a lady called Helen Bannerman. She was travelling to Chennai by train and in order to pass the time, she wrote this story for her children. For reasons possibly best known to Bannerman herself, she named Sambo Black Sambo, Sambo’s mother Black Mumbo and his father Black Jumbo, all common Tamil names of the time no doubt, with the ‘black’ thrown in to remind us just how black these black South Indian people were. Like the version I heard, Sambo loses his clothes to some tigers but unlike my version, the original has the tigers melting into a pool of ghee which is then collected to make pancakes, an extremely popular Tamil food. The story ends with the helpful fun fact that Sambo ate 169 of them while his mother ate 27 and his father ate 55.

This does not feel like one of those stories someone slaved over, crafting every line carefully to ensure that each word was exactly perfect. It seems more like a product of its time, written out of boredom and I naively believed that it would be rightly consigned to that very special place where we keep racist children’s stories of the past. But that didn’t happen with this story. ‘Little Black Sambo’ continues to be popular even today. Goodreads has a fair number of people who have taken great pains to explain why the story isn’t racist and how if you think it’s racist, that makes you racist? I’m still not clear how that works but anyway.

‘Little Black Sambo’ has consistently made it to various best children’s literature lists and has been published many, many times. In fact, between 1905 and 1953 alone, 27 different English versions were published. For some reason, it keeps getting re-written, each version hoping to be less offensive than the last. A “side-story” about Ufu and Mufu, Sambo’s younger twin siblings was published as recently as 2011. Which of course leads to the question that often accompanies problematic things — why? Why has it endured, why do people defend it so passionately and perhaps most intriguing of all, why do people keep re-writing it to try and make it more politically correct? We’ll try and answer some of these questions in the next column (but I don’t think we will succeed).

Next: Everything that's wrong with 'Little Brave Sambo’

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 10:21:02 IST