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A Controversial Lightning Rod:
The Story of Little Black Sambo


People interpret The Story of Little Black Sambo in different ways. While some people see the book as sweet and endearing, others respond to the book as highly racist and offensive. We must look at the sources of these opinions to get to a true picture of this book.

Yes, Little Black Sambo was written by a sweet Scottish woman who probably had no idea how controversial her story was to become. Written in the late 19th century, the book has actually been a catalyst for many deep discussions about racism and prejudice. What I have noticed consistently, however, is that African-Americans who grew up when Little Black Sambo was prevalent in schools have not only negative, but exceptionally emotional responses to the book. When I read that these African-American adults, upon recalling the book, feel embarrassed, shamed, hurt, and confused, I realize that these words are how adults who were abused as children describe their memories. In short, whether Bannerman meant to or not, her words, especially when combined with the illustrations, were emotionally abusive for many African-American children. And, as the book was released internationally, the book has more than likely has negatively effected people of color throughout the world. James Baldwin wrote, A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. How true is this statement? When we as teachers ignore the impact certain stories have on our students, we are displaying the type of calousness that borders on despising the child. We must respect others' feelings and reactions as we work to educate all our children.

Below you will find several links to various sites that have their own spin on the book. Some of these sites have a negative reaction to the book, while other sites have a positive or neutral response. Because some of these sites graphically discuss racial issues, please do not open these sites when children are present.


Sites that discuss Little Black Sambo:

The Story of Little Black Sambo

This site provides the original text of the book. It also provides other books written by Helen Bannerman. this is a good site to explore without children present, and it will give you the opportunity to come to your own conclusions as to whether or not the book and its illustrations should be considered offensive.

"The Picaninny Caricature"

This site discusses depictions of African-American children for most of America's history and the effects of Little Black Sambo.

"National Public Radio"

This site takes the view that the newest printings of the book erase the book's "racist and troubled history." National Public Radio is part of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

"Little Black Sambo (Caution - Contains Ethnically Offensive Content)"

This You Tube site provides you with an original animated cartoon of "Little Black Sambo." While the cartoon is only eight minutes long, the amount of ethnically offensive stereotyping jammed into these eight minutes is eye-opening and should help provide perspective on "Little Black Sambo" as more than an inane little story.

Christine Schwalm vs. Mongomery Board of Education

This lawsuit upheld the banning of the use of The Story of Little Black Sambo in public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland. The reasons for this decision are explained, as is the opinion of the plaintiff who wanted the ban lifted.

"Remember Little Black Sambo"

This is a blog by Eddie G. Griffin, ex-Black Panther, and his happy memories of the book. Griffin offers a different African-American perspective and discusses the book through a positive lens.

"Japanese publisher defies Little Black Sambo protest"

Discusses the controversy that has erupted over the book in Japan.

"Japan Prejudice and Black Sambo"

This Time article discusses the controversy over the book in Japan.

"Visualizing Otherness in America: Racist and Discrimantory Views of Afro-Americans in Popular Culture - continued"

This site from the University of Minnesota's Center for Holocaust and Genocide displays disparaging images of African and African-Americans. Please scroll down to see the images; you may at first believe that the page has not actually loaded when it has. At this same site, you will find other explanations of this embedded prejudice at Visualizing Otherness III Set 1.

Google Timeline of of the History of Little Black Sambo.

The timeline offers the political history of this text.

Back to Literature, Past

. Carolyn Howard-Johnson portrays Little Black Sambo as an innocent children's story that reminds her of a wonderful childhood. She believes that people get too involved in attempting to be politically correct.

Little Black Sambo and the Legacy of Image in African American Literature for Children.

Wande Knox Goncalves discusses the history of African American characters in children's literature. Pointing out that the first images of "Little Black Sambo" were obviously insensitive and racist, she also explains that with the banning of this text, African American characters disappear from American children's literature for many years. However, recent efforts have reversed this trend and have provided positive African American characters in children's literature.


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