Little Black Sambo by Bannerman: thoughts on racism in children's literature.

I didn't catch the very beggingin of the thread but the following should shed some light on this particular title, the controversy, and racism in children's literature in general. As of today, June 7th 1995, the discussion is still going strong in CHILDLIT listserv. I will add more entries as they come into my mail-box.

If you don't have time to read the thread in its entirety, here are the quick pointers to several important articles: Julius Lester's defense, Dian Borek's caution and people's disagreement on how to "protect our children from being hurt by books", and the heated discussions ignited by articles from Linda Jolivet and Elizabeth Wiley.


From: Julius Lester

The original Little Black Sambo was *not* Indian. Helen Bannerman wrote it for her daughters while they were living in India. She said that her daughters were quite familiar with the things of India because for them India was the norm. They had grown up theret. The African setting for Little Black Sambo was meant to be exotic, i.e. different from anything her daughters could have imagined.


From: Linnea Hendrickson

Oh, dear. If Little Black Sambo is not set in India, why are there tigers there?


From: John Gough

As far as I know "Little Black Sambo" is set in India, where clarified butter fat is called "ghee", as it is called in the British editions I know.

Incidentally Bob Dixon's classic and extreme criticism "Catching Them Young 1: Sex, Race and Class in Children's Fiction" (Pluto Press; London, 1979,pp 101 - 103) points out that "LBS" is identical to an earlier Swedish story "Little Lisa", citing Leila Berg for his information, but giving no publication data or author for the Swedish book. Does anyone know this? Dixon notes that "the characters [of "LSB"] are more like African sterotypes while the setting is,vaguely, India" (p 101) - one of the lesser problems presented by it and Bannerman's other stories in the series.

Who said "LSB" wasn't set in India?

Incidentally, I still find the story charming, but I have never read it to any black-skinned children. Dixon's chapter on race discusses children's responses to this and other racially objectionable books, and the effect on school racism in the playground resulting from a poster of "LBS" being displayed at the school. A great deal depends on how a book is used. Apart from the naive style of the illustrations, is there anything to object to in the action of "LBS" - and isn't LBS himself an appealing child figure, with caring parents, and a heart appetite?

Any comments?


From: Michael Levy

Jerry Pinkney said in a recent lecture that LBS was one of his favorite books as a child because it showed a resourceful black kid. He suggested that the problems with the book stem primarily from the stereotypical illustrations and the connotation that later attached to the name Sambo.


From: Marie McDermed

So where did that Tiger come from? (I hold no brief for Little Black Sambo but?)


From: Linda Jolivet

For those of you who think Little Black Sambo is "charming", please get a hold of a video titled Ethnic Notions, and educate yourselves. The same people probably think Picanniny, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom were just dandy images, as well.


From: fairrosa

On Wed, 17 May 1995, Linda Jolivet wrote:

"For those of you who think Little Black Sambo is "charming", please get a hold of a video titled Ethnic Notions, and educate yourselves. The same people probably think Picanniny, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom were just dandy images, as well."

*ahem* I don't have any specific notion or feeling about Picanniny, Aunt Jemima, and Uncle Tom...since I didn't grow up in the States. And I didn't read LBS in English as a child. Actually, I had no idea where the story was set at or that he's of any Ethnic significance. But, I STILL LOVED, ADORED, and WAS CHARMED by the story in which a little boy with so much happiness and wits turn all the adverseries into delicious food!

The story has all the right elements: food, beautiful bright colors, a child not dependent on the grownups, a little fright, and a very happy ending, to make up a completemly delightful and CHARMING story. I still don't understand why people have to bring so much of their personal agendas into a story.... *sigh* *sigh* *sigh*

I still find this tale superb! SORRY!


From: Janice Del Negro

In a reading to "Little Black Sambo: A Closer Look" by Phyllis Yuill for the Council on Interracial Books for Children, the original "authorized" version of LBS took place in India, hence the tigers (at least) are in their proper locale. Coming from the Chicago PL, I have followed the posts on LBS with interest (Charlemae Rollins, a long time Chicago librarian, was definitely not a fan of LBS, and her legacy is very strong). It appears there are several issues at work here: the names (Little Black Sambo, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo) which have incredibly racist overtones; the illustrations, which are also stereotypical and insulting; the issue of whether or not Bannerman based this tale on a traditional Indian folktale, which she then retold, or whether it is a wholly original story (Mr. Plotnick, do you have anything on this re: the Rama tale? I read somewhere that there was a Swedish variant about a boy eating pancakes- now I'm trying to track down the citation.); and then, just to muddy the waters further, the story itself- if the names were different and the illustrations (from lack of a better term) politically correct, would this story be acceptable? Or is this tale so emotionally charged that it is impossible to separate it from harmful, racist attitudes engendered by previous versions?


From: Beverly Clark

As Janice Del Negro points out, Phyllis Yuill's book is an important resource on LBS (some of what follows is her insights, some mine). One of the problems with the book is the ethnocentric way in which Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman, conflated "other" cultures. The tigers and ghee suggest an Indian setting. Bannerman's original illustrations, on the other hand, show Africans. Sort of. Actually they have white lines around their mouths, so they're really (?) whites in black face, echoing minstrel make-up. The illustrations are also dreadfully stereotyped in other ways: stick figures, stiffly posed; in one the kerchiefed fat Black Mumbo awkwardly reaches a jacket out to her son--i.e., suggesting distance, not intimacy. Yuill juxtaposes this illustration to another by Bannerman, of a white mother and daughter--illusionistic, warmly rounded, the daughter overlapping the mother in a way that evokes intimacy. In short, Bannerman didn't portray the LBS figures the way she did because of lack of artistic skill but was consciously stereotyping them.

Then there is the name Sambo, long a contemptuous, generic way of referring to black men (as in, "Here, Sambo, fetch this bag to my compartment"). Further, consider the foregrounding of "black" in the title, implying the abnormality of being black. Think of what would be the corresponding titles featuring white characters: LITTLE WHITE WOMEN? THE ADVENTURES OF WHITE TOM SAWYER? WHITE PINOCCHIO? WHITE HEIDI? WHAT WHITE KATY DID? I think too that in 1899, when Bannerman published LBS, "black" was a rather derogatory term for blacks; the polite term would have been "colored" (remember what the acronym NAACP stands for--an organization founded soon afterwards). . . .

Now it's true that some individual African Americans have been empowered by the story, especially early in the century, when it was virtually the only available story for children featuring a dark-skinned child. Since then, however, anecdotal evidence suggests that when a teacher reads the story to a multiracial class any African Americans in the class are then called Sambo.

It's also true that there have been attempts to whitewash the illustrations, featuring Mama Sari or whatever. Yuill reprints a particularly egregious example in which the mother has been given straight hair, a sari, and maybe fifty fewer pounds, but the father and son retain the African hair and faces of a previous edition.

I think that the tale now carries so much cultural baggage that it's not retrievable--for children. It does, however, figure in our cultural history. I address it in my college-level Children's Literature class--in the most difficult class I ever teach, but a challenge that I feel it is important to take on.

By the way, the original illustrations haven't disappeared. Two years ago in San Francisco I was in a bookstore that prominently featured a new release of the original edition.


From: Linda Mandlebaum

If it is true, as Julius Lester reported, that the story was written by a mother for her children who had grown up in India and she wanted to use an exotic location, so she used Africa, she didn't do her research. I wonder what she would think about all the controversy over the story and what she would have done differently had she known what would happen.

I guess it's been so long since I read the story that I don't remember what is wrong with it (besides the tigers in Africa). When I was a child, I thought Sambo was quite clever.

I have looked back at all of the postings on this topic and I find nothing that clarifies the issues. Please don't tell me to look at a video or read a book, just tell me what is objectionable about the story.


From: Marsha Grace

Bev, thank you for taking the time to write a clear elucidation of the objections to LBS. Those who still cling to the "charm" of this book do not have a clear picture of the power of repeated exposure to subtle racism. Again, thank you for taking the time to write.


From: Linda Mandlebaum

The postings by Janice Del Negro and Bev Clark have certainly clarified for me the problems with the book. I had not recalled the white-face aspect nor was I aware of the derogatory connotations of the name Sambo. Had I seen the illustrations recently, I think I would have realized they were a problem, but I would not have caught the problem with the names.

There are so many aspects of text and illustrations that need to be considered when evaluating multicultural literature. While some of them should be obvious, others need background experience and knowledge to be able to evaluate. Which is why I recommend giving a book to someone from the culture of the book to evaluate.

Thank you both for an education.


From: Mari Stangland

I, too, remember Sambo's Restaurants -- in Nebraska. They were closed and re- named because of the association. I couldn't find a copy of LBS in the Omaha Public Library because, if memory serves, they were found to be too controver- sial. That was 1970-something. I finally found copy in a VERY small town library. It had been turned so that it could not be seen, but the librarian knew how to find it if someone asked for it.

In both the book AND the murals all through the restaurants, Sambo wore a turban that was held together by a jewel and he was fighting off tigers and turned them into butter for his pancakes (I think). Neither the book I read nor the murals depicted Sambo as black -- but as from India.


From: Peter F. Neumeyer

Among the most valuable contributions to the Little Black Sambo discussionn, and the much larger issues implied, see the not- generally-known article, "The Id, the Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism," STANFORD LAW REVIEW, January 1987, pp. 318-388, by Charles R. Lawrence III. To pique your curiosity (Monica Edinger), it begins at the Dalton School, with a fifth grade --oops--with five-year olds, that is--reading Little Black Sambo. See, too, Lawrence's fine footnotes, pp. 278 ff.


From: Elizabeth H Wiley

How about Little White Barbie? Barbie's grandmother sent her a new OUTFIT to-die-for. She sent Barbie a beautiful fushia pink suit with black bordered lapels, a pair of drop earrings with gorgeous black and irridescent pink stones. Her loving grandmother sent her a pair of pink hose with blue flowers that went all the way up her shapely thigh to her short fushia skirt. She sent a beautiful pair of very high-heeled irridescent blue strappy sandels with fushia soles and fushia linings. My wasn't Little White Barbie Grand?!!

Just in case anyone is still wondering whether Helen Bannerman was offensively racist or just a good writer. And yes I'm showing my prejudice against the above.


From: fairrosa

What is the actual point here? Maybe I'm just too dense, but what did you mean when you said: the ABOVE -- that Helen Bannerman was a racist or was a good writer?

Did you try to illustrate that beautiful outfit for Sambo doesn't make a good story? All I can see here, though, is only outfit and no story line or rhythm of language. Please can you make it clear for me what you really tried to say? Thanks.


From: Linnea Hendrickson

I have not seen any of Bannerman's books other than Little Black Sambo, which I was delighted to find in a facsimile of the original edition, remaindered in a San Francisco book store two years ago. We have Phyllis Yuill's book about LBS in the library, but there is nary a copy of LBS to be found in ANY library (well, I must admit I didn't check all the private school libraries) in Albuquerque, NM. Not even one stowed away in a special collection so that scholars or those who want to see what all the fuss is about can even get a peek at it! It might well be easier to get hold of a copy of The Satanic Verses in Iran.

I know that Little Black Sambo has caused hurt, and that it reflects the unconscious racism of its time. I know that the drawings are gross caricatures (now that I have finally, after a lifetime of knowing the story without having seen Bannerman's pictures, seen them), and I know about the stereotyping in the names and how "Sambo" has come to be used, or perhaps was used even at the time Bannerman wrote her little story. And I hope that times have changed or are at least changing. Unlike me, my children grew up both knowing children of many races and reading books about children of many races, and I suspect that they would be puzzled about the use of the name Sambo, or even Uncle Tom.

Anyway, I just wish we'd stop beating Little Black Sambo to death and censoring it out of existence so that even scholars can't get a hold of it and those who admit to having loved the story as children are forced to hang their heads in shame (How could you be so unenlightened!), while meanwhile we are blithely unaware of other prejudices we hold. (What! You let your children sleep in your bed? Horrors!)


From: Elizabeth H Wiley

The "good writer" was for those who defend LBS for its language and drama and the child's resourcefulness as if it is unfairly criticized. When Helen Bannerman wrote it, one of the most prejudicial aspects of the book, which present day readers aren't mentioning, was the passage about the child's clothes. In her British eyes, in her day, the gaudiness of them was part of what set the non-white races apart for ridicule. As her writing was to the non-white, so mine was to Barbie et al.


From: John Gough

We must be careful. What we might call "gaudy" someone else calls "style"!

Beth Wiley offered this version of Little Black Sambo:

"How about Little White Barbie? Barbie's grandmother sent her a new OUTFIT to-die-for. She sent Barbie a beautiful fushia pink suit with black bordered lapels, a pair of drop earrings with gorgeous black and irridescent pink stones. Her loving grandmother sent her a pair of pink hose with blue flowers that went all the way up her shapely thigh to her short fushia skirt. She sent a beautiful pair of very high-heeled irridescent blue strappy sandels with fushia soles and fushia linings. My wasn't Little White Barbie Grand?!!

"Just in case anyone is still wondering whether Helen Bannerman was offensively racist or just a good writer. And yes I'm showing my prejudice against the above.

"The "good writer" is for those who defend LBS for its language and drama and the child's resourcefulness as if it is unfairly criticized. When Helen Bannerman wrote it, one of the most prejudicial aspects of the book, which present day readers aren't mentioning, was the passage about the child's clothes. In her British eyes, in her day, the gaudiness of them was part of what set the non-white races apart for ridicule. As her writing was to the non-white, so mine was to Barbie et al."

Let me remind everyone that Little Black Sambo was written in 1899 - I doubt there'll be much of a centenary celebration. At this time egrets and birds of paradise and other birds with startling plumage were being slaughtered almost to the point of extinction so that fashionable ladies could wear the bright, large feathers in their hats; or wear the actual wings of slaughtered birds, or the corpses of the actual birds. Similarly a popular fashion accessory was the fox fur which consisted of the body of the fox, head, feet, pelt and tail, draped around elegant necks.

Before we condemn Bannerman for offering us a "gaudy" little black boy - no! wait! Bannerman offered her daughters this, her publishers going the next step of offering it to us - we should look again at the fashion of the adults who bought Bannerman's books.

Do not let the graceful (in our eyes - it cannot be stressed too much that culture is relative!) ladies and gentlemen shown in Impressionist paintings mislead us into finding racist contrast between LBS and his readers. Consider the bright colors and striking images to be found in popular Catholic art of that time, prominently displayed on the walls of houses - bleeding hearts, and sacred hearts and doves in aureoles, and haloes galore, the kind of thing that Salvador Dali satirised or apotheothised, depending on your point of view!

Consider the colors shown in Degas' ballet and race course paintings (ditto Dufy), and ask whether the word "gaudy" might be apposite. Look at the strange garments worn in films set in this turn of the century period - for example "Half a Sixpence" (based on H.G. Wells "Kipps") - including striped blazer jackets for men, and yards and tards of cloth for women whose sole fashion aim was to resemble a fantastic flower. Consider when polka dots were invented. Consider the enthusiasm with which a strong violet color was adopted in ladies' fashion as soon as the first aniline dyes were invented in 1841 a few decades before LBS. Consider the passion for tartan (now there's "gaudy" for you - aren't tartans beautiful in their gaudiness?) that swept Europeean fashion with the success of Scott's "Waverly" novels.

We must be very very careful. I don't think Barbie could ever be ungaudy - or do I betray my own prejudices?


From: John Gough

To be read in your best "Billy Goats Gruff" voice.

Once upon a time there was a little boy, and his name was Little Kid Foxtrot. And his mother was called Mummy Tango. And his father was called Big Rumba. And Mummy Tango made him a beautiful red coat and a pair of beautiful blue trousers. And Big Rumba went to the market, and bought him a beautiful green umbrella, and a lovely little pair of purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings. And then wasn't Little Kid Foxtrot grand?

So he put on all his fine clothes, and went out for a walk in the tundra. And by and by he met a troll. And the troll said to him, "Little Kid Foxtrot, I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Kid Foxtrot said, "Oh! please Mr Troll, sir, don't eat me up and I'll give you my beautiful little red coat." So the troll said, "Very well, I won't eat you this time, but you must give me your beautiful little red coat." So the troll got poor Little Kid Foxtrot's beautiful little red coat, and went away saying, "Now I'm the grandest troll in all the tundra."

And Little Kid Foxtrot went on, and by and by he met another troll and it said to him, "Little Kid Foxtrot, I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Kid Foxtrot said, "Oh! please Mr Troll, sir, don't eat me up and I'll give you my beautiful little blue trousers." So the troll said, "Very well, I won't eat you this time, but you must give me your beautiful little blue trousers." So the troll got poor Little Kid Foxtrot's beautiful little blue trousers, and went away saying, "Now I'm the grandest troll in all the tundra."

And Little Kid Foxtrot went on, and by and by he met another troll and it said to him, "Little Kid Foxtrot, I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Kid Foxtrot said, "Oh! please Mr Troll, sir, don't eat me up and I'll give you my beautiful little purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings." But the troll said, "What use would your shoes be to me? I've got four feet, and you've got only two: you haven't got enough shoes for me." But Little Kid Foxtrot said, "You could wear them on your ears." "So I could," said the troll: "that's a very good idea. Give them to me, and I won't eat you this time." So the troll got poor Little Kid Foxtrot's beautiful little purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings, and went away saying, "Now I'm the grandest troll in all the tundra."

And by and by Little Kid Foxtrot met another troll and it said to him, "Little Kid Foxtrot, I'm going to eat you up!" And Little Kid Foxtrot said, "Oh! please Mr Troll, sir, don't eat me up and I'll give you my beautiful green umbrella." But the troll said, "How can I carry an umbrella, when I need all my paws for walking with?" "You could tie a knot in your tail, and carry it that way," said Little Kid Foxtrot. "So I could," said the troll "Give it to me, and I won't eat you this time." So the troll got poor Little Kid Foxtrot's beautiful green umbrella, and went away saying, "Now I'm the grandest troll in all the tundra."

And poor Little Kid Foxtrot went away crying, because the cruel trolls had taken all his fine clothes. Presently he heard a horrible noise that sounded like "Gr-r-r-r-r- rrrrrrr," and it got louder and louder. "Oh dear!" said Little Kid Foxtrot, "there are all the trolls coming back to eat me up! What shall I do?" So he ran quickly to a birch tree, and peeped round it to see what the matter was.

And there he saw all the trolls fighting, and disputing which of them was the grandest. And at last they all got so angry that they jumped up and took off all the fine clothes, and began to tear each other with their claws, and bite each other with their great big white teeth. And they came rolling and tumbling right to the foot of the very tree where Little Kid Foxtrot was hiding, but he jumped quickly in behind the umbrella. And the trolls all caught hold of each other's tails, as they wrangled and scrambled, and so they found themselves in a ring round the tree.

Then when the trolls were very wee and very far away, Little Kid Foxtrot jumped up, and called out, "Oh! Trolls, sir! Why have you taken off all your nice clothes? Don't you want them any more? But the trolls only answered, "Gr-r-r-r-rrrr!" Then Little Kid Foxtrot said, "If you want them, say so, or I'll take them away." But the trolls would not let go of each other's tails, and so they could only say, "Gr-r-r-r-r-rrrrr!" So Little Kid Foxtrot put on all his fine clothes and walked off.

And the trolls were very, very angry, but still they would not let go of each other's tails. And they were so angry that they ran round the tree, trying to eat each other up, and they ran faster and faster, till they were whirling round so fast that you couldn't see their legs at all. And they still ran faster and faster, till they all just melted away, and there was nothing left but a great big pool of melted butter round the foot of the tree.

Now Big Rumba was just coming home from his work, with a great big brass pot in his arms, and when he saw what was left of all the trolls he said, "Oh! What lovely melted butter. I'll take that home to Mummy Tango for her to cook with." So he put it all into the great big brass pot, and took it home to Mummy Tango to cook with. When Mummy Tango saw the melted butter, wasn't she pleased! "Now," said she, "we'll all have pancakes for supper!"

So she got flour and eggs and milk and sugar and butter, and she made a huge big plate of most lovely pancakes. And she fried them in the melted butter which the trolls had made, and they were just as yellow and brown as little trolls. And then they all sat down to supper. And Mummy Tango ate twenty-seven pancakes, and Big Rumba ate fifty-five, but Little Kid Foxtrot ate a hundred and sixty-nine because he was so hungry.

So, what's the point?

Beverly Clark suggested that "the tale now carries so much cultural baggage that it's not retrievable - for children".

The modified version of the story above can be used as a test, at least at the oral level. All I have changed is the names of the characters, and exchanged "troll" for "tiger" and "tundra" for "jungle", and "birch" for "palm". Ihaven't altered the gorgeous clothes, and have tried tomaintain the otral ryhthms. I would be interested to hear if anyone dares read this to their children, and to find how the children respond. I'm sure it was "oral" before it was illustrated, and I first knew it as a radio story, without pictures.

I predict that children, if they are used to oral story-telling without pictures (in this dreary TV-ridden age many children may not be able to cope - maybe you could wave a red handkerchief or brandish a crimson slipper, and pause for a commercial break, also), will enjoy the story. They could be invited to draw their own pictures.

All you publishers out there who want to pick up a surefire winner, help yourself - you can have my version for nothing - negotiate directly with Bannerman's estate for copyright.

And all you trolls out there who take gross exception to my appalling anti-troll attitudes - I hope you meet a child like Little Kid Foxtrot!

Incidentally, Australia and other British Commonwealth copyright countries have been spared silly attempts to white-wash LBS. Our version has always been Bannerman's.

Also, note the cumulative interaction between LBS and tigers - this is another cumulative story like the Enormous Turnip.

Finally, how were the pancakes made before they were fried? This was one of Bannerman's slips. I guess when she stole the "Little Lisa" story it had pancakes as we know them - Scandinavians are famous for pancake eating - in fact all the Northern European countries eat quantities of yeast-less cakes. But in India there are several varieties of fried flat breads, such as chappatis, which resemble pancakes in being round and flat and fried: but first they are rolled out, and then they are fried. Maybe the LBS Cookbook could settle this.


From: "Roy E. Plotnick"

This retelling was almost exactly what was done in the "My Book House" version I have (1972 edition). Sambo was changed to Rama, the names of the adults were similarly changed, and the drawings were redone to eliminate the insulting "blackface"caricatures. (I wonder if an Indian would be insulted by the new drawings!?). Since I never read LBS as a child, I didn't recognize the story until I read it in an earlier edition.

So: is the story itself inherantly racist? I don't think so. Were the early illustrations racist? - of course Are the current illustations racist? - not sure, but I doubt it. The remaining (and critical) question is whether Bev Clark's statement: "I think that the tale now carries so much cultural baggage that it's not retrievable--for children."is correct. Can a child hear an "updated" version of the story without being told its history?


From: Lana Brown

But what's your evidence the clothes were being ridiculed? When I read my version as a child in the early sixties (with definitely Indian illustrations), the clothes were very beautiful and described as such. It's certainly possible I just missed a snobbish tone, but can you quote something? Or something?


From: John Gough

Roy Plotnick suggested:

"This retelling was almost exactly what was done in the "My Book House" version I have (1972 edition). Sambo was changed to Rama, the names of the adults were similarly changed, and the drawings were redone to eliminate the insulting "blackface"caricatures. (I wonder if an Indian would be insulted by the new drawings!?). Since I never read LBS as a child, I didn't recognize the story until I read it in an earlier edition.

So: is the story itself inherantly racist? I don't think so. Were the early illustrations racist? - of course Are the current illustations racist? - not sure, but I doubt it. The remaining (and critical) question is whether Bev Clark's statement: "I think that the tale now carries so much cultural baggage that it's not retrievable - for children" is correct. Can a child hear an "updated" version of the story without being told its history?"

Most of this is right. But let me add a little. I haven't seen the Indianised version he mentions, which Lana Brown saw when she queried the racist ridiculing of LBS's "gaudy" clothes ("When I read my version as a child in the early sixties (with definitely Indian illustrations), the clothes were very beautiful and described as such." Lana Brown). But obviously this was an Indianised version. That is, the orginal LBS story (albeit with its mangling of African people in a land of tigers and Indian "ghi") had been relocated into sub-continental India, saris, tigers, ghi and all. If only there could have been a tiffin-taking curry-munching gin guzzling pukkah sahib on a passing elephant to shoot the oh so troublesome tigers! What fails in this case is that any realistic NON-WHITE setting is still potentially open to charges of racism, or, my goodness gracious me, stereotyping (hence my clumsy hints at a Peter Seller's Bombay Welsh idiom in these latter sentences).

That's not what I tried to do. I subtracted LBS from its mangled original setting into an equally mangled imaginary setting - a "tundra" where at least one birch tree grows, and where "trolls" lurk. I doubt there are any trees in a tundra, nor any trolls. Similarly I altered "tigers", which are potentially plausible threats, to "trolls" which are imaginary, fantasy, Nordic traditional fairy-tale threats. This adds to the essential unreality of the setting - an unreality which I believe existed (despite the views of its modern deplorers) in the original setting.

Finally for names which are now deemed objectionable I substituted equally silly but otherwise unobjectionable names (unless you take your ballroom dancing very very seriously), which happened to fit the euphony. The silliness was deliberate - it is part of the unreality, and the potential humour, such as we find in the Grimms' stories of the youngest son "Dumling". Surely being called "Dumling" is about as funny and silly as being called "Foxtrot" or "Rumba" - unless, of course you are the one called "Dumling" or "Foxtrot"; and as no one is, no one need take offence, but enjoy the silly joke.

The rest stands, then, as Roy so pertinently argues.

But why should an "updated" (well, in both versions the setting is "timeless" - after "brass" and "umbrellas", but before "diets", as the Florinese in William Goldman's "The Princess Bride" might say) de-racinated abstracted version need to be told with any reference to an earlier version? After all, it is quite obvious that generations of Americans have heard "updated" Indianised and sanitised versions of LBS with no reference whatsoever to the Bannerman original? Why start quaking with guilty consciences now? If the story in a new form works (do you think it does?) why not forget past mistakes and enjoy what is now innocently enjoyable?


From: Judith V Lechner

I think irony is very hard to pick up if you are not of the culture or very well versed in the shared assumptions of a past culture. John Gough reminds us of the "gaudy" Europeans of the turn or the century and even mid 19th century after analine dyes were invented. True, but "well bread" people also pulled up their noses at some of their fellow Europeans. I remember (sorry, can't remember in what specific books) in which ladies with ostentateous hats are ridiculed. But, regardless of how Europeans viewed their own tastes, they did think of people of other cultures as gaudily, not beautifully dressed. Even in the 1960s (we sophisticated teenagers in N.Y.C.) knew better than to wear puple with green (heavens forfend) or blue with green either, for that matter. (If you were still reading LBS you were probably too little to be aware of these incredibly important rules.) But even before my New York City teen years, I knew that one does not wear yellow and blue if one does not want to look like a "jazzy American." This was in pre-1956 Hungary, and my source of fashion advice was another 10 year old kid.


From: Naomi J. Wood

I have mixed feelings about "Little Black Sambo," but I'm wondering if retelling the story as "Little White Barbie" does exactly the same thing. It seems to me that in order for LWB to function similarly there would have to be similar kinds of implicit slurs--specifically, the naive naturalization of negative stereotypes. In "Little White Barbie," the focus might be "blonde"--if the whole story were set up as a dead-pan "blonde" joke, the analogy might work more, although there's the problem that even though "blonde" equals "dumb" to many in this country, it's still also desirable, whereas the same could not be said of "Little Black Sambo" when it was written.

When I heard the story of "Little Black Sambo" growing up in Zaire, I loved the story, the descriptions of the clothes, and since I had never heard of "Sambo" as a derogatory epithet, that didn't bother me. I wonder, though if children of color have the same kind of blithe ignorance. It would seem not, especially when they are minorities, or when "LBS" is the only story in the classroom that features a black child. As a white child, perhaps I could distance myself from (or be comfortably unaware of) the racist overtones, whereas black children in America have no such luxury?


From: Elizabeth H Wiley

Thanks for getting my point so clearly and adding information so well. I have been trying to remember when I realized that the description of clothes was patronizing. I chose the story to tell for a class in 1960, mainly because it was easy and I knew it.

I know I knew then that the perceived cultural superiority was part of the author's humor. It is dreadful how culturally unconcerned people were then.


From: John Gough

Has it gone on too long? I'll tryto say no more about LBS after this ...

I am inclined to think that Bannerman was beyond this kind of patronizing. She made up a story for her daughters. They were living in India (have you ever been to India? anywhere in Asia? anywhere beyond Twentieth century internationalized White-European "culture"?) surrounded by culturally different people - situations, languages, clothes, food, even animals that were all dramatically different from the unthinkingly accepted European standards. Surely they were equally unthinking and accepting of the Indian differences.

All that is implied by Bannerman's description of the clothers is "otherness" - these funny people are not us. We do the same thing, as did the Grimms and other ethnographers, when we read, "There was once a woodcutter with three sons ...", or "Once upon a time a king ...". For Bannerman it is the clothes, for the fairy story tellers and collecters it is the setting which separates us (who are fundamentally not that separate after all, and hence face the same terrible threats as tigers, witches, dragons, and magic spells) from the diverting and educating people we encounter in stories.

If we want to read in some sense of Bannerman's cultural superiority, and hence criticise her, don't stop there. Look at the language she uses. You may not remember it, but maybe your parents or grandparents will: it was once a cardinal sin of writing to use the word "got", in the way Bannerman does - "So the troll got poor Little Kid Foxtrot's beautiful little red coat", "So she got flour and eggs and milk", and so on. The point is that she is telling a simple story in a simple way that occasionally breaks adult rules. But she doesn't care, because she is telling it to her daughters, and it is meant to be funny, and she knows it works orally because her daughters (who haven't learned to be horrified by "got", and maybe aren't at all disdainful of the "grand" clothes) like it.

More than ten years earlier Frances Hodgson Burnett published "Little Lord Fauntleroy" (1885) and the dramatised version of 1888 established the fashion of velvet knickerbockers and massive lace collars, with long Prince Valiant locks down to the shoulders - for boys! By the time LBS came along in 1899, there may have been plenty of lads cursing Burnett who would have been pleased to dress like LBS if only they could throw away the velvet and lace, swagger around the tundra, and eat a stupendous dish of pancakes.

If you object that I am describing the fashions of the ruling classes, and ignoring the mass audience of LBS, dressed in drab browns (and pink boas, and heliotrope furbelows, and rampant bombazine!), consider then the Cockney Pearly kings and Queens, the bright clothes of gypsies - the choice of peoples everywhere at every time to adorn themselves gorgeously unless they were in mourning - and even sombre black could be worn with devastating style. Consider the wicked description of ladies' hats as seen by men given by Louisa Alcott in "Little Women, Part 2" when John and Meg are striking a rapprochement after the birth of their twins. Are we so blinded by our sense of the rightness of our own fashion that we forget what our fashion used to be, or how our fashion would look to others, and then are startled by what LBS wears and conclude it is part of some cultural propaganda to demean these tiger-fearing pasncake-munching people?

We ought to be careful we do not read LBS too closely, inferring sneers where there are none, calculated negative values where there is unconsidered entertainment, a sense of cultural superiority where there is no thought of culture at all, theirs, ours or anyone's.


From: Perry Nodelman

In his eloquent defence of Little Black Sambo, John Gough writes:

"We ought to be careful we do not read LBS too closely, inferring sneers where there are none, calculated negative values where there is unconsidered entertainment, a sense of cultural superiority where there is no thought of culture at all, theirs, ours or anyone's."

I'm intrigued here by the phrases "unconsidered" and "no thought." It strikes me that the most dangerous forms of racism are the ones we are not aware of, precisely because we don't consider them and don't bother to think about them. I imagine that most of the people who were entertained by Bannerman's book--including members of her family--weren't sitting there giggling over how cleverly she had shown up the silliness of those silly black folk and therefore had made a political statement that they could agree with about how inferior members of the other races are. Instead, I'm sure, they just took it for granted, as a truth, as merely obvious, that black folk did act in this silly way, inevitably, were inherently and bbviously a source of humor, could and should be laughed at, etc. It was just the way things are--obvious. Which is to say, and to borrow John's words, the whole trouble here is that "there is no thought of culture" going on here. According to Louis Althusser, cultures--theirs, ours, or anyone's--always express themselves most pointedly in terms of what their members take for granted as obvious and don't therefore have to think about: it takes someone outside the culture--as we now are outside Bannerman's culture, or so I hope--to see that the obvious isn't necessarily true, in fact represents unconscious bias, and needs to be noticed, thought about, and in some cases--as in this one of LBS, I believe--condemned.


From: Rachelle Linner Winsor School

I am not able to respond to this discussion because I have never read Little Black Sambo, but I want to address the kinds of discussions it, and similar books, generate. It seems to me, as a white woman, that one of my persistent struggles has been the inevitable slide into a false innocence, i.e., I like to see myself as a "good" person, and "good" people are not racist. When I retreat into such innocence I fall prey to dangerous sentimentality (which normally creates only cynicism in me) I need to keep before me the reality that, as a white woman, I participate in structures of racism, institutional as well as personal. The best I can hope for, through friends and reading and an openess to experience, is to try to expand, by even a little, my ability to question racism and imagine what it is like for people of other races to live in this culture. Now, to bring this discussion to children's literature, I think that the most satisfying books are not those with sentimental harmony, but the acknowledgment that we are not innocent, and part of maturity is living with ambivalence and our limits and flaws. Not to accept them as static, but a false innocence deludes into self-complacency. So I ask: are there books that do address this, whether in the context of race or history or fantasy, and what can they teach us about racism?


From: Perry Nodelman

On my earlier comments about the most insidious racism being the kind people simply took for granted as obvious, Linnea wrote:

"Perry, I think you are absolutely right about the unconscious bias, and that this is the most pernicious kind. We are all almost certainly biased and prejudiced about various things that only some later generation will be able to see, no matter how hard we try to be fair. BUT, and it seems to me that this is the hard question, does this mean we are to condemn the story of LBS to oblivion or to simply recognize the biases that underlie the story in terms of the time in which it was written? As you say, we hope we have moved beyond Bannerman's world. Are we to throw out LBS and if so, what about the rest of the world's literature which offends someone and furthermore continues to perpetuate stereotypical views of men, women, Catholics, Jews, children, the handicapped, and everyone else who was "other" to the writers and readers of this literature?"

To which Rachel Winner wrote:

"I think that the most satisfying books are not those with sentimental harmony, but the acknowledgment that we are not innocent, and part of maturity is living with ambivalence and our limits and flaws. Not to accept them as static, but a false innocence deludes into self-complacency. So I ask: are there books that do address this, whether in the context of race or history or fantasy, and what can they teach us about racism?"

These comments raise on issue that's very much in my mind these days. It goes like this: I have no doubt--no doubt at all-- about the unconscious racism, sexism, etc. of all sorts of literature--not just in something so obvious as Little Black Sambo, either. Having been taught by ideological and new historical theorists how to read literary texts in terms of how they always (mis)represent the world and always do so in terms of giving some people (whites, men, adults) power over others (minorities, women, children), I can find evidence of that going on even in books I love dearly--in Charlotte's Web, in Alexander's Prydain books, even in Virginia Hamilton's wonderful novels. If I followed Rachel's logic, I'd have to give up on these books and go looking for other, saner ones; but as I just said, I don't believe any other ones do exist or could possibly exist. The other apparent choice is implied by Linnea's comment about Little Black Sambo: "my question on LBS is, should it be condemned or can we accept the story as a product of a time that we have moved beyond and again see it as 'charming?'" In other words, can we acknowledge the presence of unconscious bias in a literary text, and see what it is, but then disregard it--not allow it to influence the pleasure we take in the text? And if we can do it for one text such as LBS, then I'd like to ask, how about ALL of them? Can we--and this is the heart of my concern-- can we both see a text's racism or sexism AND at the same time not condemn or give up on it? Is it possible both to condemn and enjoy at one and the same time?

I'd sure like to believe it is: for if it isn't, then my theoretical position as outlined above is going to suggest that I'm not allowed to ever enjoy anything at all. It's all dangerous, and I always have to be deeply suspicious, especially about texts I enjoy, for clearly they're influencing me in ways that my pleasure isn't allowing me to perceive. Or, perhaps, I'm only allowed to admit to enjoying those texts which, as far as I can perceive, exactly mirror the values I myself hold dear and take for granted--for that alone would appear to me to be unbiased, unprejudiced and realistic enough to be worth sharing with the children I love??? And that would give me an incredibly narrow range of literature to read and enjoy, and to recommend without hesitation for sharing with children.

The only trouble is, I'm not sure I know how to go about doing this paradoxical thing: both being aware of bias and enjoying the texts that contain it.

Well, that's not quite right. I DO know how to do it,. I do it all the time. Linnea, it seems from her comments on LBS, does it too. What I don't know is how to explain it or justify it-- what language it would take to describe this paradoxically double kind of reading and responding. I sure would be grateful for any suggestions.


From: Alice Naylor

In response to Perry Nodelman's question: how to explain or justify accepting a "story" but not necessarily its bias. It seems to me that one of the problems -- but maybe it is opportunities -- is that all perspectives do not have equal status in our culture(s). If we were not (USA) in a pretty extreme racist country, we wouldn't (we being white folks) be so hung up on LBS. If we were African American, as we have witnessed from Julius Lester, we would know exactly how we felt about LBS. So my point is that it is the inherent inequality of our society that makes it impossible for us to justify liking a story but not its assumptions. We don't have to imagine what a literary discussion would be like if there was equality -- all you have to do is witness what a literary discussion of a white middle class perspective (in a book) by white middle class critics. There are different perspectives, interesting discussions, and it is all very "civilized". Too bad, we aren't completely civilized in our society as a whole.


From: Peter F. Neumeyer

Regarding the issue raised by Perry Nodelman. . .

Well, of course there's a well-known society that does have a literature entirely without guile, baseness, or prejudice. There, "Temperance, Industry, Exercise and Cleanliness" are the sole lessons taught to the young. And so sane and perfect and rational is this society that its members actually cannot even conceive of "lying," of Saying the Thing that is Not. Such virtue, on the other hand, may be a mixed blessing, limiting the Poetry of the Houyhnhnms to "exalted Notions of Friendship and Benevolence." (4:ix)

As for us, it seems that Adam ate the apple, or Prometheus stole the spark. And therefore, ever since, we've been irredeemably implicated in strivings and cruxes and conflicts and loves and hatreds symbolically rendered by Aeschylus, Dante, Goya, Swift, and on and on.

Passion, of course, is the soul of literature, painting, music. Perfect Reason, absolute Benignity are conditions perhaps to be desired. But these are not the conditions of art. Nor are they the conditions of the human race.

So, practically--if houyhnhnmesque Virtue is the condition most needful, there's plenty of work at hand. But if some in this readership are moved powerfully by the grand, moving, problematical expressions of the human spirit--by the arts--then you've just got to accept the fact the rendering of Irreproachable Morality has never been one of the criteria.

It's not for nothing that when gullible Gulliver came to the Perfect Creatures, they appeared as horses. And since they lacked both love and hate, and all the emotions that storm through most of us, their vocabulary was minimal. Because they weren't human. And human-ness is the sole subject of all art.


From: June Cummins Lewis

I'm glad this issue has been raised, for I have been fretting over it for some time. In my situation, I am accusing certain texts of racism or sexism in public forums, and thus the struggle is more than an inward one. On the one hand, I agree with Perry that to suggest that the political incorrectness of these works means we should censor them leaves very little for us to enjoy. On the other hand, it is almost impossible for me to over- look the "isms" when I perceive them.

I think part of the answer may lie in finding a balance of disregarding and acknowledging the biases. The balance might be different for differing audiences. Say we choose to read a book like LBS to a child. In the case of a very young child, we might not say anything about the biases we perceive. With a slightly older child, perhaps one as young as 3 or 4, we might find ways of beginning to demonstrate that texts are complicated, multifaceted things. We might ask a child how a negative character in a story might have his/her own perspective (we have already seen this happening with modern fairy tales that take on the wolf's perspective, for example). As the child gains more awareness of the world around him/her, we could expand our discussion to include critique and questioning of assumptions that the text conveys. Thus, we are not censoring a book, but we are not accepting it blindly, nor are we teaching our children to accept without question.

With an adult audience, we can be more aggressive in our criticism of children's books that harbor bias. In doing that, we leave ourselves open to hostile cries of "censorship" and ill will. But is the alternative to shut our mouths and not point out or discuss what we feel the text might be perpetuating? I hope that it is not.

I am in a sticky situation because I am going to be giving a paper at a large conference that attacks a children's book that we all know and many of us love. I am trying to find a way to do this without alienating my audience at the conference. More importantly, I do not want to suggest that this book no longer be read. What I want to do is point out the racism and power structures I perceive, but in a context that suggests that adults can counter these prejudices in their reading relationships with children. I wonder if I can do this effectively.

I would be grateful for suggestions, too. I think part of the answer lies in teaching our children to be critical readers--but not at the expense of their experiences of the pleasures of literature.


From: John Gough

Dear Rachel,

if we put to one side the matter of illustrations, if you have read my cleaned version "Little Kid Foxtrot" you have essentially the read the story. Where I say "troll, tundra, birch", read "tiger, jungle, palm". The names are these: Little Black Sambo, Black Jumbo, and Black Mumbo. If you haven't read it, why not try it.

As for your mention of "most satisfying books" I would urge caution. Contrary to your description of books which acknowledge that we are "not innocent, and part of maturity is living with ambivalence and our limits and flaws" as most satisfactory, I would suggest that some of the most satisfying books we have say very little about non-innocence, ambivalence, limits or flaws. Consider, for instance, Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods" on its own from the rest of the sequence - I struggle to think of a more satisfying book, but isn't it innocent, unambivalent, limited in some ways, unlimited in others, flawed in only natural simple human ways (naughty Grandpa to go sledding on the Sabbath! shame!)? In the area of race, consider almost all of Ezra Jack Keats' books - innocent, simple, naturally human - profoundly satisfying. The fact that the characters are black is just one far from trivial detail, but do white or non-black readers complain? It is essential that we ground these discussions on actual books, or we are in danger of talking about well-intentioned nothing.

Naturally your other comments about seeking to become more personally aware I applaud - so do we all aspire. Thank you,


From: John Gough

Dear Perry, I never believed poor old Little Black Sambo would lead to this deep searching. But maybe all reading is precisely the simultaneous double act you suggest at the end; seeing, and seeing through; believing and disbelieving; accepting and condemning. Maybe this is why Plato prefered to simplify the difficulty by avoiding it, and condemned all representational art. We read about a meal, for example, and obtain vicarious pleasure, but we surely know we aren't being fed! We meet a character, and like him or her, but we know we haven't done any more than respond to ink on paper, and my response turns out to be different from your response (especially if we are both asked to draw a picture).

Yet maybe, unaware of this doubleness, teachers fail to recognise one of the early difficulties some beginning readers have in separating the representation from the reality, and hence finding it hard to get the point of reading at all. Maybe if we looked at these children's responses to other kinds of representation (oral narrative, gossip, TV) we would see the same kind of uncertainty about how they should accept and not accept, and confusion about what they should do to respond to the ink on paper.

As you say, we (confident, sceptical, double-dealing readers) do it all the time, not always aware of it. Maybe it's unavoidable, and natural. Only the hard work of reflection, the testing of assumptions, the challenging of unstated acceptances, reveals how easily and naturally and unconsciously we do it.

Turn this around, and the same applies to writers, and anyone on the producing end of storying and other representations. But this takes us into theories of esthetics, meaning and communication - way past simple awful issues of racism in a picture story book, or a story surviving from one era into another.

Maybe all along LBS has been a test case of some very important matters.

Thank you so much for your very careful responses and hard thinking.


From: Wendy E. Betts

John Gough wrote:

"I wonder what book you are going to attack? I ran into trouble when I published criticism of Susan Cooper's "Dark is Rising" sequence, and never succeeded in getting my criticisms of Mary Norton's "The Borrowers" sequence accepted for publication. People don't like to be told the things they love are faulty."

Do tell us about your criticisms of _the Borrowers_. I recently read it for the first time--something about it always put me off as a child--and found it more sad and disturbing than cozy. The Borrowers were such pathetic little parasites--their lives seemed so futile. Did you address class issues in the series or something else?


From: Jane Yolen

In fact, both the Little House books and Ezra Jack Keats have had charges laid against them, the former from Native American groups who feel the Little House books represent the tribal peoples in a bad light and Keats because of "Mammyism". One of the female characters in his Peter books (I think it's THE SNOWY DAY) is a large black woman.

I read Nesbit lovingly as a child. Now let us pause a minute. I am Jewish. I read Nesbit around the end of WW2. My father had been posted to England during the war. When did I notice any anti-semitism in the books? About ten years ago when I was asked to write an afterwards for one of the psammead books, and I re-read them. What does this say about young readers? (Or am I of ther particularly dense variety?)


From: Del Negro, Janice

Jane Yolen wants to know if she was "dense" as a child- well, if you were, I was , too. As a child I loved Burnett's THE SECRET GARDEN, still can get caught up in it, but as an adult reader am made *very* uncomfortable by the racism inherent in the text. Now what? The "unsavory" elements are not integral to the plot, but are most certainly present. Do we stop reading the book? Do we selectively edit a la P.L.Travers? Do we censor? (Questions I have...answers, not so many.) I had a journalism professor once who said that there was no such thing as objectivity- that everything we observe or experience is filtered through our previous observations and experiences. If this includes what we experience through reading and books, does it indicate a need for a great deal of experience with a wide variety of literature, or a limited experience with an approved selection? There is an article in VOYA this month about a young adult program called "Don't Read This", a dramatic presentation about banned books that encountered a great deal of resistance from well-meaning adults (teachers and principals) trying to "protect" students. The young adults involved in the project indicated that they didn't need protection from books, they were quite capable of reading and making of their own minds. If we take the position that some books should not be read, for whatever reason, who are we protecting and what are we protecting them from? If we accept the idea that a work of art, a piece of literature, is inherently flawed simply because the artist who created it also has flaws, then don't we need to discuss how to critically evaluate the work? Does critical evaluation include the juxtaposition of current social mores onto a "period piece"? Do those social values have a place in the critical evaluation of art? I'm asking, I'm asking....


From: Rachelle Linner

Sylvia Waugh's new book, "The Menyms" might be contrasted (favorably) to the Borrowers. It's about a rag doll family in London, and is captivating as a story, but also has layers of meaning, including questions about perpetual adolescence, pretending, loyalty, and relationships in this multi-generational family. She has recently had a second book about the Menyms published; so far I've only read one (good) review of it, but unfortunately can't remember its title. She taught children's literature for 20 years.


From: Michael Joseph

To my mind reconciling the pleasure of reading with a need to behave ethically seems, in one sense, a tantalizing puzzle & yet not unlike Descarte's preoccupation with how the mind and its body touch. So, why not consider Descarte's unquestionably brilliant phrase, "to compass this infinity by imagination"? I do not offer this as a solution lightly, but I do offer it cheerfully.


From: Michael Levy

Yes, social values do have an important role to play in the critical evaluation of art. The problem is that many people want them to play the primary role. Do Isuggest to my students that when they become early childhood educators they should remove Little Black Sambo, Five Chinese Brothers, Babar, Little House in the Big Woods, The Indian in the Cupboard, et al from their shelves? Of course not. Do I make a point of making them aware of the racism to be found in these books? Absolutely. Do I suggest that they use these books in conjunction with other books that might counteract or at least balance the racism? Of course.

WE can't wipe out the history of children's literature, but we can look at it with a critical eye. We can appreciate the classics for what makes them classics, but take note of their imperfections as well.


From: Martha Muzychka

In reading the discussion about LBS, and now the Secret Garden, I have been struck how often people say I liked this book as a child, but reading as an adult, I am shocked by some of the ___ (insert problem here). This has been a common experience for me too. I remember reading all the Little House books and admiring Laura for her strength of will and determination. When I re-read them as an adult, I was struck by how little material there was about Laura's mother and how much pride Laura had for her father. Yet her mother obviously came from a different class background (remember the emphasis on the sprigged delaine (sp?) and some treasures Caroline had), and presumably gave up a lot, and learned a lot about life in the backwoods.

My point is that as an adult I have more knowledge about life and society, and this knowledge allows me (and sometimes provokes me) to read/understand in a completely different way material I read and enjoyed as a child. Similarly, I think our adult knowledge of racism and white privilege allows us to see the biases in LBS. However, I am not completely convinced that this new awareness means we can't read/enjoy LBS. I suppose I am assuming that teachers/readers who read LBS are sensitive to these issues, and incorporate this understanding in their discussions of what "goes on" in a text. (Mind you, I don't think I would have liked it if my teachers had used The Hundred Dresses to deal with my classmates' harassment of me, the daughter of immigrants. Too much sensitivity, even if well meant, often invites unwelcome attention.)

This is a difficult issue, and we can't shy away from discussing it because our own comfort levels might be disturbed. I am interested in hearing from others about what they have learned from re-reading old favorites as adults, and how they have tried to deal with it. Of course, you might notice that I haven't yet offered my two cents on how I have resolved this question :).


From: Emily Carton

I think every work as every person has a historical context. As a child I did not pick up on many racial/ethnic things as I do now. It is always a quandry. Children seem to love Curious George, Babar, and Doctor Dolittle, which are all about the white man civilizing those that are different. As adults, we understand the implication, but do children? As a child I read literally and did not make the deeper implications. If we gloss over and remove everything that we now consider wrong, it also feels like wiping away history.


From: Linnea Hendrickson

Perry, I think you are absolutely right about the unconscious bias, and that this is the most pernicious kind. We are all almost certainly biased and prejudiced about various things that only some later generation will be able to see, no matter how hard we try to be fair.

BUT, and it seems to me that this is the hard question, does this mean we are to condemn the story of LBS to oblivion or to simply recognize the biases that underlie the story in terms of the time in which it was written? As you say, we hope we have moved beyond Bannerman's world. Are we to throw out LBS and if so, what about the rest of the world's literature which offends someone and furthermore continues to perpetuate stereoptyical views of men, women, Catholics, Jews, children, the handicapped, and everyone else who was "other" to the writers and readers of this literature?

I, as a child reader, felt only admiration for Little Black Sambo, for his ability to outwit the tigers, and envy for his beautiful clothes -- I am still secretly longing for a pair of purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings with magnificent turned up pointed toes (any one selling such may e-mail me directly) -- and having all the pancakes I could eat was one of life's great pleasures. So, was I guilty of unconscious prejudice for liking this story? Are my children developing stereotypes because I shared this story with them? In my case, my knowledge of and acquaintance with Black people came much later and from much different, and sometimes much more harmful sources of information and misinformation than my knowledge of LBS. For my children, I don't think the story had any relevance in their minds to their Black friends and acquaintances.

So, my question on LBS is, should it be condemned or can we accept the story as a product of a time that we have moved beyond and again see it as "charming?" The one problem I see being that in the world at large we unfortunately may not yet have moved beyond racism.


From: Jim Maroon

A lot has been said about this book, but I have seen few who have seen fit to defend it. Those of you who have been members of this list for a length of time already know how I feel about it, but just to weigh in once again...

I like Little Black Sambo, and I make no apologies for it. It was one of the first stories I recall hearing as a child, and it was one of the first books I bought for my youngest daughter, with Bannerman's original illustrations. I do not think it is a racist book, nor do I think it was meant to be racist. I think the scholars who have been cited have a read a LOT into it that isn't there, and they are reading it with adult, somewhat biased, eyes. There must be some reason why this book survived for children so many years, why one generation after another love it in spite of all the political effort to silence it. It is a good, sweet story about a clever little boy with whom children of all races identify. I think children often know what is best for them better than we, and that includes books like _Indian In the Cupboard_, _Little House On the Prairie_, _The Secret Garden_, and all the others we are questioning in this discussion. If we insist on continuing to view these works through 1995 jaded political eyes, we will have to boot anything older than 20 or 30 years.

I purchased this book for one of the library systems for which I worked, some 20 copies, and it was among the most popular books in the library. I noticed a number of people who checked it out were African American. I never received a single complaint.

I find it most interesting that some of the names I see attacking this book were among those who attacked the desires of folks of religious right who wanted to see books that reflected their views included on library shelves. It is more than a bit ironic that these same names complained that morality was being shoved down their throats.

Who is doing the shoving now?


From: Barbara Goldenhersh

Reading all the recent thoughtful messages (I was gone for 10 days and plowed through 387) made me wonder if we needed to read some of those books which we now see to have contained racist, sexist, etc. aspects in order to be the thinking adults we are. I certainly did not see the problems in the books when I was a child (and I was a voracious reader) but was always very aware of any intolerance I saw or heard. I fought such prejudice where ever I found it.

Did those stories help me to become more observant as a witness to life? Was there an unconscious acknowledgement of what I read which provided me with an understanding I would not have otherwise developed? Will children develop such consciousness if we create politically correct book lists or must they read the materials and use the knowledge to define their own understandings of the world?


From: Shirley A. Tastad

I have followed several episodes of Little Black Sambo on Childlit, but Jim Maroon's comments prompted me to reply this time. I, too, loved the cleverness of LBS as a child, and I loved his beautiful clothes (my version pictured him from India).

A few years ago when I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, the esteemed Jackie Torrance came to be the featured speaker (and master storyteller) for the U. W. Storytelling Conference. It was my "job" to entertain her and tend to her needs. What a wonderful experience! During one all conference session, Jackie talked about how our views change depending on the political climate. She told how a young African American man had "discovered" this wonderful story for her to tell--you guessed it, Little Black Sambo!


From Julius Lester

I have been following the thread about Little Black Sambo and morality and literature with some interest as there was a similiar thread on the Usenet group rec.arts.childrens.books last fall. It is surprising the extent of the emotion aroused by LBS almost a hundred years after its publication (1899). Obviously it is held in deep affection by a lot of people who want to reconcile their affection for the memories evoked by the book and their present-day assessment of it. And I think that might be possible.

Many people who have participated in this discussion have expressed shame and embarrassment that they liked the book as children but can see now what they could not see then. Well, first of all, as children books are a source of entertainment. If a story is not entertaining, it is of no interest to children. LBS is an entertaining story. It's a fun story and there is no shame in that.

More important, and perhaps central as to why participants in this discussion missed the racism in the book as children is because they had no reason to identify with the main character. Little Black Sambo was not them. He was different. He was other. When I read LBS as a child, I had no choice but to identify with him because I am black and so was he. Even as I sit here and write the feelings of shame, embarrassment and hurt come back. And there was a bit of confusion because I liked the story and I especially liked all those pancakes, but the illustrations exaggerated the racial features society had made it clear to me represented my racial inferiority - the black, black skin, the eyes shining white, the red portruding lips. I did not feel good about myself as a black child looking at those pictures.

So, it is not surprising that a white child looking at the book would not be so effected. Now, whether that white child took away negative attitudes about blacks is the question, and from what I've read in this discussion, it would seem people did not. It seems that the racism in the drawings simply did not effect anyone. And I don't doubt that.

I also thinks it makes a difference if the book is read to a child or if the child sees the illustrations. If read only, the only possible racism is the names. Sambo has been used as a pejorative to describe black men for many decades and the use probably is taken from the book. Which would indicate that Little Black Sambo does represent negative stereotyping of blacks.

Is the book racist? In context, yes. LBS was written at the end of the 19th century at the time when Social Darwinism was the leading social philosophy. Social Darwinism says there is a hierarchy of races representing the evolution of humanity along the lines of Darwin's evolution of species. It is during this period that the leading universities engage in measuring the skulls of blacks and whites and Indians and on the basis of skull size and capacity determine the place of each on the evolutionary chain. LBS appears during the time when racism is rampant and informs colonial and imperialistic policies of the U.S., German, French and English governments.

Is LBS *maliciously* racist? Not at all. It is a product of its times and as such, is rather benign. Bannerman does not use dialect and malapropisms. She does not deliberately or even consciously ridicule Little Black Sambo. In fact, there is a tension in the story between the illustrations and the story line. In the story line LBS is quite a wonderful character. The illustrations tend toward stereotypes.

What is interesting is that Bannerman did a series of stories about Little Black Sambo. There are five additional stories, in fact, and the illustrations in these deemphasize Sambo's blackness. He is almost depicted as a little white boy with dark skin.

I don't know if LBS is the problem now that it was in the forties when I was a child. Then, LBS was about the only children's book in which I could see myself. That is not so any longer. As long as LBS is one book among all the others depicting blacks, what's to be afraid of?

As for all those who feel guilty in retrospect -- there is no need to. We are all bound by the culture in which we live. Our culture roots us and limits us simultaneously. And cultures change and what was acceptable at one time is less acceptable at another. That does not mean the previous acceptance was wrong. We didn't know then what we know now.

However, I would be hesitant to assert, as someone did, that his daughter was exposed to LBS and there is not the "slightest tinge of racism in her little body." Racism is not a quality of existence; it is attitudes and it is acts. Racism is not only malevolent and crude; it is also expressed innocently and unconsciously, without malice aforethought. Each and every one of us is capable of expressing racism, despite our best intentions. Sometimes we make ourselves appear absurd in our earnest efforts not to say or do or think anything that might even remotely appear to be racist. As absurd as we sometimes may appear to "get it right", I think I prefer that to the certainty that one or one's child is free of racism.

I hope it is clear that I am not attacking anyone, nor anyone's child. It is just that I get very nervous when a white person tells me they aren't racist. After all, why did they assume I might think they were?

One final thought: We are living in an age when we no longer share assumptions about what it means to be human. In the classroom I find myself confronted by women students who complain if there are no books by women on the syllabus, or not an equal number, by black students who say white authors have no relevance to them, by gay students who object to reading about heterosexual relations. Perhaps some of our salvation from this kind of madness will come when we regain that attitude we had as children: "Wow! That was a good book. I really enjoyed it!"

"Why, dear?"

"I don't know. Just did."

We don't always need to justify what we like or don't like. Sometimes "just did" is justification enough.


From: Sharyn November

Thank you, Julius Lester! Thanks, that is, for reminding us all about the simplest response to a wonderful book: "I just liked it." (That, as someone recently remarked, is the reason why children do not review books for the Sunday TIMES.)

Of course it's good to know WHY you like something. And it's important to read a range of writers -- male, female, hundreds of years old, written last year, etc. It is dangerous to confine oneself to one's own milieu. I would certainly not want to read only books about Jews from Long Island! (I don't think anyone on this listserv would.)

There is a place for the intellectualization of our likes and dislikes. One hopes that it happens after we know how we FEEL about what we read. Otherwise, we are machines.

Just my somewhat chaotic two cents' worth.


From: Shirley A. Tastad

I have followed several episodes of Little Black Sambo on Childlit, but Jim Maroon's comments prompted me to reply this time. I, too, loved the cleverness of LBS as a child, and I loved his beautiful clothes (my version pictured him from India).

A few years ago when I was a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, the esteemed Jackie Torrance came to be the featured speaker (and master storyteller) for the U. W. Storytelling Conference. It was my "job" to entertain her and tend to her needs. What a wonderful experience! During one all conference session, Jackie talked about how our views change depending on the political climate. She told how a young African American man had "discovered" this wonderful story for her to tell--you guessed it, Little Black Sambo!

From: Naomi J. Wood

Thanks to Julius Lester for an important clarification of the issues surrounding the book *Little Black Sambo*; in our recent critical discussion, we have been focusing on our reactions "then" as children and "now" as adult critics. Children often have no choice but to respond to texts out of their experience--it's not surprising that white children do not see the racism in Bannerman's *Black Sambo* while black children may be painfully aware of it. Children who are members of oppressed groups must develop consciousness of their "difference" at a much earlier age than children who think of their status as "normal"--if, indeed, these children need to think of it at all.

My question now: As critics, we have been talking about the ways that we can understand or control the book *Little Black Sambo* so as to minimize its potentially damaging effects. Has anyone tried to teach children critical reactions to literature? In other words, it seems as though one of the most enabling, powerful moves you can make in reference to books is to stand back from them, see how they work, and be able to be critical, rather than simply to be acted upon as a passive receptacle.

I come from a fundamentalist background that privileged the Bible over all other texts. When I read the Bible as a child, I was very disturbed by the ways in which women were described and legally constricted, and I remember writing on my Bible somewhere in one of St. Paul's letters "What does God have against women?" My difference from the presumed norm, in this case masculinity, enabled me to have a critical reaction to a text I was predisposed to take as authoritative. But I was not given the critical tools to take this farther and say--"is this, then, a text that I should implicitly believe or follow?" That only came later in my "godless" (!) university experience. Perhaps this double vision could be used to enable children to develop the necessary critical tools so that they could withstand the incredible pressures toward conformity and assimilation. I tend to think this is a better solution than censorship, but I would also like to know if anyone has tried it with young children.

From: Deborah L. Thompson

Thanks to Julius Lester for putting the Little Black Sambo discussion into pers pective. As an adult, I can appreciate LBS as literature that reflects Bannerm an's era. But as a child I thoroughly detested LBS because white children and a dults showed no qualms as they called black males either Sambo (if the man was in his teens) or LBS if the male was young, say up to 10 or 12. Of course ther e were other more hateful names (I was often called Sapphire by a guy old enou gh to know better.), but since there was no outlet for my anger against the nam e callers, I took it out on my copy of Little Black Sambo, (Yes, I had a copy w hen I was about five or six.) and I cut it to shreds--a serious action for some one who would try to read by the light of the moon when my parents sent me to bed. LBS is the only book I ever physically destroyed in my life.


From: Michael Joseph

Thanks, Julius Lester, for the edifying and passionate contribution to the LBS thread, which, I agree, is surprising in many respects especially its longevity. Long time Childlitters will remember echoes of this LBS thread having preceded it (euroborically) by a year or more. Not least remarkable, I think, though I am prejudiced in favor of seeing this list as a productive and learned forum for exchanging ideas, is the freshness of insight and the unpredictibility of the perceptions discussants continue to offer, the agility of their arguments and the serious of their convictions. I am inclined to believe that it is literature and language that elicit these feelingful responses, and our multifarious views on what literature and language are about. PeterN, John Gough and Constance Vidor have sung, in brilliant harmony, that literature reflects life, or illuminates life, or heightens our perceptions of life. Perry Nodelman's eloquent aria asked us how to reconcile the feral joys of reading with ethical behavior. I would sing my conterpoint, that literature is literature, that it neither reflects, illuminates, nor alters life, except, perhaps, in the way a lie may reflect, illuminate or alter the truth. To my mind, the quixotic attempt to reconcile the two may easily impose ponderous restraints upon one's ability to respond spontaneously to language, and to enjoy the vast freedoms of consciousness.

Let me say here that I have laughed at jokes about blacks, about poles, about Jews, about blondes, about bald men, about Armenians, about doctors, lawyers, anyone and everyone I could. Anyone want to tell me how many listserv owners it takes to screw in a lightbulb, sure I want to hear it. But, it better be funny. HOW it's funny, or how any joke is, endlessly fascinates me. Really, it does. I like listening to (groan? not from me) explanations of jokes. They require processes of analysis and linguistic capacities and imagination far in excess of what Empson stoicly conceded "a life requires." They are improvisations as free of representation as music (which Stravinsky vehemently said represents nothing). Listening to a child explaining a joke is a miracle (until it becomes boring). Yet, how pale its beauty indeed beside reading _Haroun and the Sea of Stories_ or _Huckleberry Finn,_ or _Good Night, Moon_ or _The Cat and the Hat._

I believe that, as you say, "if a story is not entertaining, it is of no interest to children." I do not think this disparages the reasonableness of children, since entertainment, for children, is whatever feels good. What could be saner? Duke Ellington is quoted as having said "if something sounds good, that's because it is good." Is it sensible to trust a methodology which insists that music which sounds rotten is really good music? I guess it is, actually, if by this it stretches one's ability to be entertained, to wrap one's understanding around the difficult. But to allow a theory to destroy one's most essential capacity to appreciate what feels good is to accept spiritual defeat, to have one's nature torn from him.

If children are indifferent to art that doesn't stir or move them, I think it may be useful to engage their attention by drawing them to parallels with their own life experience, but I do not think it is consonant with the aims of art to imitate life. To teach a child about the representational powers of fiction is to use a didactic device, a lie with good intentions. I would urge a child to open up to Cezanne in terms of her own experience with ripe peaches, the tactile and olfactory sensations and enjoyments of eating thereof. But, I would want older children to be aware that this artist had other motives for painting, and I would not say it was Cezanne's obligation, or the nature of painting, to represent peaches. Nor would I want to suggest anyone should condemn art because it doesn't accurately or meaningfully reproduce the pleasure of eating. Am I being perverse? I think it is perverse to teach children they must disparage a work of art because of similar representational failings. Actually, I think this kind of pedantry constitutes child abuse, since it deprives a child of something that is her right to have and to value herself for having, the ability to feel whether a literary object is good or not.

The qualities some of our discussants praise when they praise the inter-activity of fiction and life are, I think, qualities of verisimilitude, not representation. The concern remains with appearances, which I would try to persuade you are all the artist engaged in the act of creation should consider. In life, this kind of singlemindedness would be highly unethical. One doesn't let Ophelia drown, or stab the old fool behind the arrass because it makes a better story. Nor, I think, does it really lead to our greater sensitivity or compassion or attune our perceptions to any reality beyond the written page. If appreciating the dimensions of the tragedy of Othello is supposed to deepen my sorrow for O.J., I'm sick already.

I, as others, may have missunderstood PeterN's notion of "life as it should be." I tend now to suppose he meant to share an appreciation of fiction's ability to reveal one's governing sense of a higher fiction, a metafiction. But where in life does this metafiction live? Where are the realities to which Hamlet or Oedipus or Job refer? To look anywhere but within the system of language and literature is to entertain oneself with further fictions. Perhaps what we are fighting to create in our discussions about Little Black Sambo is a metafiction about children's literature, or at least about Little Black Sambo--"Little Black Sambo as it should be." I think that losing sight of the substance of fiction, its flesh, by confusing it with reality, is to fail imaginatively to handle the opportunities at hand.


From: Dian Borek

Dear Fellow Children's Specialists:

This is the second comment I have seen on Childlit in the last 24 hours that I think we all need to pay close attention to. Whether or not we found Little Black Sambo offensive, part of literary history or whatever...we CANNOT ignore its impact on some of our most precious resources, the children. ANY book that can hurt a child this deeply demands our fullest condemnation.

Do not mistake me, I am not advocating censorship: but a heightened sensitivity that may be answered when collection mandates dictate keeping first editions or comprehensive dated children's literature material etc. If we must keep it, we can show some sensitivitiy, (albeit poor) by keeping something like this under "special collections" in the adult children's literature section.

We can carry this beyond LBS. No matter what the literary merit or failings of a book may be we must not forget to monitor and be very sensitive to the child's perspective. If we forget who the literature is intended for and the impact it may have on our children then such a situation could inadvertantly repeat itself. Sometimes it is very interesting to know what upsets a child. I was recently reading Michele Landsberg's book and she spoke of some unsavory characters in a book (sorry I don't have the quote in front of me) that she found offensive as a child because they were patterned after a Jewish stereotype. Being w.a.s.p. I would never have thought about such a thing before. Now I am particularly interested in what the child sees and feels when they read a book. I would not want to relegate every potentially offensive book to the adult section (because if you carry this to the extreme maybe a child doesn't like books with dogs in it etc); we would have precious little left on our shelves. However as a children's librarian (if I ever finish my M.L.S I am starting to feel like I have been going to school forever!) I am very willing to be educated in such things, by the children.


From: Linnea Hendrickson

I, too, as one of the "defenders" of Little Black Sambo, wish to thank Julius Lester for his eloquent post. His posting on the rec.arts.books.childrens usenet group last fall has been my touchstone as I have wrestled with the problems around LBS and around Epaminondas, the story about which I presented my paper at ChLA. I, too, would not want any child ever to be hurt by any story, and I know that has happened and continues to happen. But, I also feel the context in which any story is presented is important.

I would hope that times have changed from the 1940s and 1950s, when the concept of pride in one's identity was not as widespread as it is now. My parents did not pass on their first language, Swedish, to me, because they wanted me to be a "real American." It was not good to be different. I would hope that in our classrooms today, our differences as well as our commonalities are being celebrated not scorned. As my Nepali student taught my class to sing last semester, "We are all flowers in one garden." I think as teachers and parents we do have to constantly monitor our reponses and to be sure we are communicating to our children the values we want them to have, and do our best to ensure that we are not unthinkingly passing on unconscious prejudices.

I guess what I want to say is that we can't expect "literature" to bear the entire burden for whatever hurts or misconceptions any story may cause. Much depends on the context in which it is presented.

Was Little Black Sambo "other" for me? I don't think so, but I was not "other" to my peers, at least not in connection with LBS, either. On the other hand if the noodlehead Epaminondas had been called Linnea, I am sure I would have been mortified and have been teased and identified with that character in a painful way because we shared a name in common. But, I can also think of ways teacher could handle that kind of coincidence to at least mitigate, if not entirely avoid problems. I also realize that simply having a name, for example, in common with a character in a story, is not the same as having in common something as institutionalized as race.

The fact that LBS keeps coming back into discussion, indicates that the issues it presents are important to many of us, and that we are far from reaching a satisfactory resolution to our difficulties.

I, for one, would be horrified at the thought of reading The Secret Garden to children and leaving out the racist parts. To do so would be to lie about history.

I agree with those who say that children form their ideas and more from their society than from books. What they have learned from parents, teachers, peers and television will determine how they respond to the ideas they encounter in their books.


From: John Gough

Dian Borek said: "Whether or not we found Little Black Sambo offensive, part of literary history or whatever...we CANNOT ignore its impact on some of our most precious resources, the children. ANY book that can hurt a child this deeply demands our fullest condemnation."

This is true. But we might keep in mind that children vary enormously in their capacity to be hurt.

I know personally a child who could not bear to think about reading "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" because it had "witch" in the title, and witches were terrifying. She had serious difficulty coping with goblins, fairies, magic, cowboys (they had guns), Peter Pan (he fights people), the Three Bears and so on. She didn't cope. Shge avoided, refusing to read what she felt threatened by, whether the threat was in her mind, the title, the cover picture, the first page, ... In fact her reading was severely curtailed for many years because she was so deeply disturbed by what she took as "violent", "bad", "nasty" and generally negative. There is probably a technical term for this hyperbibliosensitivity.

If she had been selecting books for her municipal library there wuld have been many empty shelves.

Yet what she was rejecting were books almost all of us would see as perfectly normal and acceptable (don't tell me you believe "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" is none of the above: I know the case against Lewis, I refute it, and have done in print, and that's not part of the point I am trying to make).

We may be on shaky ground if we follow some children's tastes too strictly. We need to try to exercise a broader, more informed view.


From: Jeff Schmidt

The posting by Bob & Dian Borek disturbed me a bit. My short comment re: this issue is that someone, somewhere can find something in almost any book that can hurt someone. We need to learn to be less sensitive, and more accepting of these issues. We need to instruct our children that they exist and fight bigotry from that perspective. To pretend it doesn't exist perpetuates the problem.

From: Jim Maroon

How true. It is impossible to completely and accurately predict how a book is going to affect a child, or an adult, for that matter. The best answer is to include as many alternatives to the same point as possible so that any possible harm is countered.

Your point about witches and such was an especially good one. There are many fundamentalist Christians who believe that there are books, such as _Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark_, _Heather Has Two Mommies_, or any number of Judy Blume books, that cause irreparable harm to children. Should we listen to them, as well?

If we condemned every book that could hurt some child somewhere, or that some ideologue considered possibly harmful, there would be precious few left. On the book in question, I still believe there is far more to admire about it than to condemn, and I think most of the folks who don't like it decided they didn't before they even set eyes on it.

From: Michael J. Matthews

My sense is that it would represent "political correctness" to banish LBS and other such works to the cellar because of superficial or occasional racism or sexism, and so it was politically correct that the restaurant chain would change its name or disappear altogether. The more courageous stance is to keep such works in the canon because of their appeal and merit, and with the caveat that elements of racism or sexism exist in them. Political correctness leads to a sanitized version of reality that insults both the majority and the minority whose feelings it seeks to spare, and whose differences it seeks to deny. I believe that children can by intuition sense these things, and know the truth despite the attempts of any adult to paint over our differences. The point is to recognize, acknowledge and accept our differences -- not to deny them. True friends can do that.

I should finally introduce myself to this list as a university publicist with an interest in children's literature who very much enjoys the give and take of this list, and the fellowship it affords.

Last Updated

April 12, 2003