Thank you to Jennie Fitzkee for her guest post for the U.L.S., the Underground Library Society. She deals with a book that is easily misunderstood as being racist, and she details that the story is really about India and not African-Americans. It is important to make the distinction between perception of racism and actual racism, as Jennie does. Now for her post:
In 1899 Helen Bannerman wrote a children’s book, Little Black Sambo, after she and her husband had lived in India for thirty years. Helen was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, and she fondly remembered those years in India. The classic story is about a little boy who outwits tigers in the jungle. I dearly loved this story when I was a child, particularly the tigers turning into butter when they ran in circles around the tree.
The boy’s name is Little Black Sambo, his mother is Black Mumbo, and his father is Black Jumbo. That is perhaps (most likely) the root of controversy and the banning of this book. Over the years people have projected the story to be about blacks in the south. Different versions were published, even a board game. The degradation of blacks was both sad and appalling.
And so, it was banned in many places over the years. “A typical pickaninny storybook which was hurtful to black children.” Those were the comments and reasons for banning the book. When I heard the story as a child, I also thought the characters were blacks from the south.
Fast forward to 1996. Fred Marcellino, an artist and illustrator, read the story. He said, “There are no racist overtones.” And there are none. Zero. It’s merely the perception because of the names of the characters. So, Fred illustrated a new edition of the book. He did not change one word of the text. He simply changed the names of the characters to be authentic to India – Babaji, Mamaji, and Papaji.
I read this book all the time in my classroom of preschoolers. They revel in chanting the words of the tigers. They love the book as much as I did as a child. We do play performances about this book. Really!
And of course, tigers live in India, not the southern states in America. So, shame on those naysayers and book banners. They should have known better.
I vow to memorize the words to this classic story.
Thank you Jennie for the post, and welcome to the U.L.S.