Little Black Sambo: Why the many attempts to rectify racism of Helen Bannerman's popular story failed

'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.


Read part 1 of this column.

Today, we are going to take a look at the bizarre history of a racist children’s story called ‘Little Black Sambo’. If we put the rather obvious racism aside for a bit, we can see that it actually has all the building blocks needed to make a good children’s story. Kids find it easy to sympathise with Sambo, and the plot is simple, peppered with lots of action that culminates in a satisfying ending. There is a repetitive rhythm to the prose which children often find appealing and perhaps most of all, Sambo manages to get his clothes back and outwit a bunch of tigers all without any help from an adult.

Over the years, the story has undergone a tremendous number of iterations. At first, it featured the author’s own alarming illustrations. But as the book became more popular, the original picture of the alleged Tamil boy was replaced with racist caricatures of a black boy. The Indian setting was retained for some reason, which is why certain versions have the absurd ending of a black boy in the jungles of India, eating pancakes. Some versions shifted the locale to the American South, so it would be more in tune with the racist illustrations of the characters. Many readers however simply assumed that the story was set in Africa, because if there was ever a tale bubbling over with African and black stereotypes, it was ‘Little Black Sambo’.

 Little Black Sambo: Why the many attempts to rectify racism of Helen Bannermans popular story failed

Detail from Little Black Sambo

Since it was first published in 1899, the book has enjoyed an incredibly robust publishing run. Even in the 1940s, when the first waves of criticism about the story began to surface in professional journals, it continued to be published and be successful. Instead of, oh I don’t know, just writing better stories, extensive efforts were taken to try and make the story less problematic. One exciting idea was to firmly bring the story back to India and by that, I mean that they changed the names and that’s about it. A 1972 version of the story has the locale as India but for some reason, the Mother is called Mama Sari because a sari is an Indian thing women wear? I guess? I don’t know but anyway, that happened. In 1996, it was re-christened ‘The Story of Little Babaji’ — with the small boy given the unfortunate handle of ‘Babaji’ because I suppose like the word ‘sari’, 'Babaji’ sounds Indian? Who knows! The one that really takes the cake however is a version that was published in a collection called ‘My Book House’, which for some reason decided to name the mother Lakshmana.

It seems as if in the efforts to make the story less offensive to black people, new inroads were made in making the story totally absurd from an Indian perspective. Though to be fair, giving the characters names with an appropriate number of vowels seems to be as far as they went in terms of making the story “Indian.” In the end, it brings us back to the question — why? ’Little Black Sambo’ and all its iterations are clearly the adventures of a decidedly non-white child. He lives in a jungle, has interactions with wild animals and lives an “exotic” life. He is, in fact, an amalgamation of ideas of what a non-white child might be, which apparently involves tigers, names ending with vowels and little else.

Would a story like this be written in this way about a white child? Probably not. But for some reason, there seems to be a real need and a persistence to keep re-telling this story, complete with various lazy attempts to dress up the racism into something more palatable. And I can’t for the life of me understand why we keep doing this when we could just be writing better, original stories.

There must be tales out there which are just better at all the things ‘Little Black Sambo’ keeps getting wrong. And surely, it is high time this story went to that special space we have for racist children’s stories, where it belongs.

In my next column, I will attempt to look at “that whole buffalax thing — were they really making fun of Prabhu Deva and Daler Mehndi, or nah?”

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 10:01:27 IST