"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Jun 21, 2015

Little Black Sambo and Me

(Author's note: the following is a story about Perceptions and Perspectives. Please bear in mind that my objective is thoughtful entertainment. Thank you for reading and sharing.)

I began a Goodwill bucket to cut down on clutter. The junk you accumulate. But I’m hanging on to childhood memories recently retrieved from Mom’s attic, like my 60s Matchbox cars, pennants from family vacations and iconic books such as The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore, A.A. Milne’s, When We Were Very Young (Winnie the Pooh) and Little Black Sambo (LBS).

As I looked at the cover of LBS I had a recurring, shuddering thought: if I suddenly dropped dead, what would my friends, particularly those of dissimilar cultural persuasions, think of me if they found my 1950s copy, complete with my learning-to-letter scrawl? Would they consider me a closet-racist? Should I burn it now and protect my reputation? Love it or hate it, Little Black Sambo is part of the culture of many of us still breathing, so I figured I’d go ahead and own up to it now.

I carefully opened the forbidden pages and reread the story cover to cover. What’s the problem, other than the terrible name?  To whom can I confess doubts about my own tolerance?  Who do I trust to ask in person? OK then, it’ll just have to be the anonymous outside world.

Thinking to be a savvy reporter, I first searched online for why LBS is considered racist, and it turns out others have re-hash-tagged the subject for years.  Some have a violent reaction to the mere title without having actually read the book. The un-Sambo’d tend to view the Sambo’d with disdain, like we’ve all got Confederate flags in our garages and Rebel-Yell down the highway.

Here’s an opportunity for innocents to read without fear of ridicule. Written by Helen Bannerman and first published in 1899, my Whitman Publishing, Tell-a-Tale copy is illustrated by Gladys Turley Mitchell. On the back cover it’s grouped with other Old Favorite Stories such as Chicken Little, Peter Rabbit and Three Little Pigs. Truly.

I hate revealing punch lines but here I must: there are two versions of this book in existence. MY Sambo lives in India and the story is full of Bengal tigers, which seemed thrilling to me in Sunnyside, Queens, New York City. (My cheap-seat comments are in Green.) Here we go!

Once upon a time there was a little boy and his name was Little Black Sambo. His mother was called Black Mumbo and his father was called Black Jumbo. (Alright, the names suck. There are numerous possible explanations for the origin of Sambo; one of which was slang for Indian subjects of the British Commonwealth. Sambo subsequently mutated into a more hateful meaning. From Wikipedia: “The name does not seem to have acquired the intentional, open derogatory connotation until the first half of the 20th century.” To continue…)

Black Mumbo made him a beautiful little red coat and a pair of beautiful little blue trousers. Black Jumbo bought him a beautiful green umbrella and a lovely pair of purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings.  Then wasn’t Little Black Sambo grand?  He put on all his fine clothes and went for a walk in the jungle. (Sambo came from a loving, two-parent home.  Me, too, and mine dressed me up like an organ grinder’s monkey on Easter Sundays, complete with gloves and crinoline slips. Mumbo and Jumbo must have been frightened to let Sambo go out alone…for the first time?)

By and by he met a tiger. And the tiger said, “Little Black Sambo, I’m going to eat you up!” (Sambo’s first experience with a bully.)

Little Black Sambo said, “Oh, please, Mr. Tiger, don’t eat me up and I’ll give you my beautiful little red coat.”

“Very well,” said the tiger. “I won’t eat you this time. But I must have your coat.”

So the tiger got poor Little Black Sambo’s beautiful little red coat and went away saying, “Now I’m the grandest tiger in the jungle.”   (Loses his coat but saves his life.)

By and by LBS met another tiger and it said, (sic), “I’m going to eat you up.”

“Oh please, Mr. Tiger, don’t eat me up and I’ll give you my beautiful little blue trousers.” Same result. To another tiger he offered, “…my beautiful little purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings.”

But the tiger said, “What could I do with your shoes? I have four feet and you have only two. You haven’t enough shoes for me."

LBS said, “You could wear them on your ears.”

“So I could,” said the tiger.” (Pretty fast thinkin’ on Sambo’s part.)

The last tiger got the green umbrella, which LBS suggested, “You could tie a knot in your tail and carry it that way.”

(Did you ever hear the story about the truck which got stuck in the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, connecting New York and New Jersey? No one could figure out how to get it out until a little boy suggested letting some of the air out of the tires. Don’t you love sharp kids who think outside the box?)

Poor LBS went away crying because the cruel tigers had taken all his fine clothes.  (Gang stripped him clean.  Nothing left but his comfy, sensible sarong.)

Presently he heard a terrible noise, “Gr-r-r-r!”

“Oh Dear,” said LBS. “All the tigers are coming back to eat me. What shall I do?” He ran to a palm tree and peeked around it. There were all the tigers fighting about which one was the grandest.

At last they got so angry they took off all the fine clothes. Then they began to tear each other with their claws and bite each other with their big white teeth. They came rolling and tumbling to the very tree where LBS was hiding. He jumped behind the umbrella.

The tigers caught hold of each other’s tails as they wrangled and scrambled and so they found themselves in a ring around the tree. LBS said, “Oh, tigers, why have you taken off all your nice clothes? Don’t you want them anymore?”

But the tigers only answered, “Gr-r-r-rrrrr!”  Then LBS said, “If you want them, say so, or I’ll take them away."

But the tigers would not let go of each other’s tail so they could only say, “Gr-r-r-rrrr!”  So LBS put on all his fine clothes and walked off.
(Here comes the best part!)

The tigers were very, very angry but still they would not let go of each other’s tail. They were so angry that they ran around and around the tree trying to eat each other up. Faster and faster they ran until they were whirling around the tree so fast that you couldn’t see their legs at all. They ran faster and faster and faster till they all just melted away and there was nothing left but a great big pool of melted butter around the foot of the tree. (Hmmm…Just Desserts?)

Black Jumbo was coming home from his work just then with a big brass pot in his arms.  When he saw what was left of all the tigers he said, “What lovely melted butter!  I’ll take it home to Black Mumbo.”  (Not only is Jumbo not a Deadbeat-Dad, he loves his wife.)

Black Mumbo saw the melted butter, and wasn’t she pleased!  “Now, we’ll all have pancakes for supper.” She made a huge plate of the most lovely pancakes. She fried them in the melted butter which the tigers had made and they were just as yellow and brown as little tigers. Then they all sat down to eat.  (Maybe this is why I served pancakes the first time I invited vegetarians over for dinner.)

Black Mumbo ate twenty-seven pancakes. Black Jumbo ate fifty-five pancakes.  But Little Black Sambo ate a hundred and sixty-nine pancakes because...he was SO hungry!


I don’t believe that book turned me into anything other than a bright color, pancake-loving optimist, but as I stated earlier there are two versions. From what little I gleaned the second is definitely insulting to the African-American community, with different illustrations, and I'm assuming words, too, but I won’t read such trash. I may be talking through my Red Hat, but I’m being more selective nowadays about what goes into my already cluttered mind.
I can’t imagine intentionally degrading a child’s book for mass production. I wouldn’t be surprised if Version 2 was only meant for south of the Mason-Dixon Line; I actually hope that’s the case, otherwise it means everyone else simply went along. Silence implies approval. I can’t believe that half a century after Dr. King’s civil rights movement we still can’t solve the same problems.

I hope I’ll always make a stink whenever I see a Confederate flag. Maybe I’m just lucky some Rednecks don’t mind being called Racist Bubba Pig with a sneer, but I’m only 5’2” and they usually don’t know how to react. They could squish me like an ant but that’s no deterrent. I just can’t help myself; I’ve got a reckless nature.

Here’s a group experience from life in Puerto Rico: invited for Happy Hour by the latest arrival in the anchorage, along with 4 couples just passing through, I was excited at the prospect of speaking English and enjoying someone else’s booze. The owner of the Texas-sized catamaran was an old geezer from Alabama traveling with a 20-something airhead; not uncommon among cruisers. It’s sad to see these young gals, lured by the idea of a glossy lifestyle, who become trapped as nothing more than cooks and sex slaves for lecherous Captains.

Before the Internet it was easy for cruisers to completely fabricate their former lives if they wished, and this guy had been an investment banker, nuclear physicist, astronaut…you name it. Boring beyond belief but we all sat and listened politely.

Our silence, along with the booze, encouraged him to relax and continue. Suddenly every other sentence contained references to N-this and N-that, with similar insults for the local islanders.

I looked around the boat but no one seemed to even register our host’s words, which disturbed me all the more. What was wrong with everybody, acting like zombies? So what if we all appeared white? I’d object if he started throwing around any racial slur; having had to endure my share of Polack jokes from an early age, which I never found very funny.

My own Captain knew what was coming, and as he softly but sternly whispered my name, he gripped my shoulder a bit tighter to hold me down.

Granted, most people are more accomplished at controlling their emotions than me, but in that particular case I think we all should have jumped him, thrown his bony ass over the side and driven him from the anchorage at first light, but not before trying to talk some sense into his First Mate. It’s happened before.

Prepared to kick start the mutiny I shot upwards, immediately followed by my Captain who declared, “We’re grabbing a smoke,” and kicked MY como-se-llama down the deck instead.

Why don’t we try applying the phrase, “Tend your own garden” when it comes to race relations? If collectively we refuse to turn blind eyes to the racists within our own immediate circles at home, school, work and play, the problem becomes easier to tackle. We can’t rely on laws and politicians to fix things while we waste valuable time, resources and opportunities on superfluous garbage.

Remember that mother who recognized and gave her son a what-for during recent rioting?  She didn’t care whether or not she was caught on camera; she did the right thing, and people loved her for it.

As for my reputation? For now I think I'll put Little Black Sambo back on the shelf, and let someone else worry about it after I'm gone.

P.S. Just for fun, I considered how I would re-write LBS, so here's my version:

"Sambo donates his fine clothes to charity and transfigures into Simca-the-Dominatrix, all trussed up like a Christmas turkey in red and purple leather, whipping those bad-ass Tigers into a frenzy ‘til they melt like butter under her smoldering gaze. She walks away with nary a glance, and treats Mums and Pops to Perkins Pancakes. Grrrr…

1 comment:

  1. The version with the worst pictures is the ORIGINAL, not a special southern version. My husband's New Jersey grandmother had a copy, and somehow was not horrified by the pictures. The version you and I knew was a much later edition. If you check Google images, you can find many versions.


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