A Guest Post for the ULS, The Underground Library Society, by Jennie Fitzkee


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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.

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39 thoughts on “A Guest Post for the ULS, The Underground Library Society, by Jennie Fitzkee

  1. I am so glad to hear this book has been brought back to light by Fred Marcellino.
    It was one of my favorites growing up in the 1950’s. Of course, my focus was on
    tigers turning into butter. Racism never entered my mind.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Good post! Thank you for sharing it!! I remember my grandmother and my birth-mother arguing over this book when I was a child. My grandmother (who had Black, Indian and Jewish friends) said the book has a non-white child as the successful hero – which was why the book was un-justly opposed – and that we should have more book-heroes of all races, religions and genders. My mother (who only associated with certain white people from a particular church) was adamant that only white people were ‘proper’ book heroes. I sided with my grandmother, read and enjoyed this book, and grew up to have my own friends of many different races and religions – much to my birth-mothers everlasting disappointment. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. We tend to project onto books/music/visual art whatever we’ve come to expect. I find it quite revealing that Americans found this book to be so racist that they had to ban it, despite obvious clues that it’s set in India (i.e. tigers). Of course, I can see how the original names of the characters could’ve easily triggered thoughts that were widespread throughout the collective consciousness of Americans at the time.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Reblogged this on A Teacher's Reflections and commented:
    What would you do if a beloved book, rich in meaning and literature, were to be banned, gone forever? Would you vow to memorize the book in order to save it? I would. When Charles French, a professor of English Literature, formed a society at Lehigh University in his English 2 class for the purpose of appreciating all books – especially those that have been banned over the years – I knew this was more than a brilliant idea. Much like the storyline in Fahrenheit 451, the members of the ULS (Underground Library Society) pick a banned book to save. The society has now grown beyond the boarders of Lehigh. I chose to champion a classic children’s book. Thank you for including me in the ULS. I am giving a shoutout to readers to become a member and tell the world about your favorite banned book, and why you would save it. Here is my story:

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am in no position to memorize anything anymore (brain cells are flakey for me at the moment) but this is a fantastic idea, Mr. French.

    And Jennie is a perfect match for this movement as well.

    For the record, I remember my Ma saying it was a sort of fairy tale from India (this tiger turning to butter thing made this one of my own favorite stories when I was young!). But I can understand the confusion in the minds of the general American public based upon the choice of names for the characters at that time, especially since it was more of an isolated society then, too. Of course that does not excuse any of the racist reactions towards the book itself, regardless.
    – sigh –

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Laura. Your words are kind, and they ring true. Like you, I can understand the why’s of the perception decades ago. The racist reactions spur me to read the book aloud and let children’s questions emerge. Recently, the Little House books were stripped of an award because of racist words. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” That’s as bad as book banning, because reading those words aloud triggers the conversations of understanding and acceptance.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Jennie, book banning is a subject I’ve pondered and even studied a bit. I used to teach a unit on book censorship in my adolescent lit course. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart. My take on it, in a teeny nutshell, is that book banning and censorship is different from making good book choices. As a teacher or parent it’s best to choose the best books one can, but a request or demand to ban a book is a bad thing, as we know. But there is a fine line when you think that a teacher is making a poor choice for the classroom. Does that make sense? What is someone else, a parent say, to do? Anyway, that has nothing to do with the book you discuss here. It was one of my favorites as a kid, but my mother did tell me it was about India. I don’t know what version it was, but the turbans and tigers made it clear to my mother that it was about an Indian boy. But those names, yes, they are/were a problem. Sambo was a very common “name” for an enslaved man in this country. Do you know if Bannerman wrote the book with those names or if the publisher changed the names? But while the names are a confusing aspect at best, what about the story is racist with the original names that isn’t with more Indian names? There must be something else there in the story. Is it that the book wasn’t written by a person of color and Bannerman could be seen as appropriating someone else’s story? I’ve got a copy of the original Bannerman book here, but don’t know where it is right now–and I haven’t looked at it in ages. If I recall, even the illustrations were confusing. What do POC say about the Marcellino version?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I believe that Bannerman used those names in her original version. She was writing for children, and I imagine she thought the names would be appealing to children. When Marcellino read the original, he found nothing racist. And he is right- there is not. The only thing he had to do to preserve the story was change the names to authentic names from India. That was it. The book is well loved and accepted. His illustrations were on display a few years ago at the Eric Carle Museum.

    Liked by 1 person

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