Little Black Sambo

In addition to spending a good deal of time with my classes exploring the ways that slavery shaped American history in the 19th Century I also introduce them to various ideas of race that proved popular at different times.  We look at images of “Jim Crow” and “Sambo” and discuss the historical background of minstrel shows.  Of course, many of these images and ideas are introduced at very early ages.  On Friday one of my students surprised me with a volume from the Little Golden Books series published by Simon and Schuster.  Apparently it belonged to one of his parents.  This particular volume is titled Little Black Sambo (1948) and was authored by Helen Bannerman who was also responsible for Little Black Quibba and Little Black Bobtail.  The entire series was overseen by Mary Reed, Ph.D who taught at the Teachers College of Columbia University.  These books are highly collectible.

The opening lines of the book are as follows:

“Once upon a time there was a little black boy, and his name was Little Black Sambo.  And his Mother was called Black Mumbo.  And his Father was called Black Jumbo.”

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4 thoughts on “Little Black Sambo

  1. GreenmanTim

    My mother grew up with her parents singing old minstral standards, including Paul Robeson’s “Mah Curly Headed Baby” with the uncomfortable lyrics “go to sleep my little pickaninny” and “Mammy’s little Alabamy coon.” My father the civil rights worker was appalled to hear these lyrics when Mom innocently started singing them to me in the late 1960s. Some words could be retrofitted – “my little sleepy Timmy” – but others were hard to replace and the song was dropped from our evening repertoire. My grandparents were from New Jersey and Ohio and loved old show tunes, Al Jolson, spirituals and the like. They had a copy of “Little Black Sambo”, too.

    Racist? Certainly, but our prejudices come in all stripes and varieties and unravelling them is not a simple question of black and white. My grandmother gave substancial money to historically black universities, although I suspect she did so out of a belief that separate ought to be equal. My grandfather wrote of his WWII experiences with the Japanese that he could not find it in his heart to hate these “little brown men.” We are, perhaps, more sophisticated today about obscuring our prejudices, but each generation faces challenges to its assumptions about race, class, religion, gender and ideology and my grandparents, and parents, were no exceptions.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Thanks for sharing that Tim. Now that I look at the cover of the book (1948) what is striking is the resemblance to the way the Japanese were often represented in cartoons.

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  3. Jude

    Little Black Sambo was originally set in India. That’s why there are tigers in it. I’m almost 52, so I read it a lot as a kid. My favorite part was the stack of pancakes and the butter.

    As a librarian, I consider Little Black Sambo to be a banned book. It is on many banned books lists, and it’s been the subject of several scholarly studies.

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