The Story Behind Little Black Sambo: The Most Controversial Picaninny Image Ever

7 Posted by - September 12, 2018 - Black Culture, Black History, History, JIM CROW, LATEST POSTS, Racism

Arguably, the most controversial picaninny image is the one created by Helen Bannerman. Born Brodie Cowie Watson, the daughter of a Scottish minister, she married Will Bannerman, a surgeon in the British Army of India. She spent thirty years of her life in India. She regularly wrote illustrated letters with fantasy storylines to entertain their children. In 1898 there “came into her head, evolved by the moving of a train,” the entertaining story of a little black boy, beautifully clothed, who outwits a succession of tigers, and not only saves his own life but gets a stack of tiger-striped pancakes (Bader, 1996, p. 536). The story eventually became Little Black Sambo. The book appeared in England in 1899 and was an immediate success. The next year it was published in the United States by Frederick A. Stokes, a mainstream publisher. It was even more successful than it had been in England. The book’s success led to many imitators — and controversies. Barbara Bader (1996), a book critic, summarized the events.

Little Black Sambo served as the boiler plate for a spate of other versions, many of which used mean-spirited racist drawings and dialogue. The vulgar reprint versions were symbolic of black-white relations. Little Black Sambo’s popularity coincided with the crystallization of Jim Crow laws and etiquette. Blacks were denied basic human and civil rights, discriminated against in the labor market, barred from many public schools and libraries, harassed at voting booths, subjected to physical violence, and generally treated as second class citizens. The year that Little Black Sambo came to America a white-initiated race riot occurred in New Orleans. It was effectively a pogrom — blacks were beaten, their schools and homes destroyed. Little Black Sambo did not, of course, cause riots, but it entered America during a period of strained and harsh race relations. It was, simply, another insult in the daily lives of African Americans.

The anti-Little Black Sambo movement started in the 1930s and continued into the 1970s. Black educators and civil rights leaders organized numerous campaigns to get the book banned from public libraries, especially in elementary schools. In 1932 Langston Hughes said Little Black Sambo exemplified the “pickaninny variety” of storybook, “amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at” (Von Drasek, 2009). In the 1940s and 1950s the book was dropped from many lists of “Recommended Books.” By the 1960s the book was seen as a remnant of a racist past.

Little Black Sambo was again popular by the mid-1990s. Its recent popularity is a result of many factors, including a white backlash against perceived political correctness. This is evident in internet discussions. Americans, black and white, are rereading the original book (and some of the unauthorized reprints). There is agreement that Bannerman’s book is entertaining. However, there is little agreement regarding whether it is racist. White readers tend to focus on Bannerman’s non-racist intentions and the unfairness of judging yesterday’s “classics” by today’s standards of racial equality. Blacks find the book’s title and the illustrations offensive. Most of the debate centers on Bannerman’s version; there is no debating the racism explicit in later editions of the book produced by other writers and publishers.

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15 Comments

  • Masiko Zungu August 12, 2017 - 8:46 am Reply

    I think this would make a great Hollywood story. A black boy triumphs over tigers and God what you will. This sounds like the original version of the Jungle Book if you ask me.

  • Aleta September 11, 2017 - 11:07 am Reply

    I had heard the version about the little boy in India, not the American pickaninny version. So sad that white America re-translated it to the American negro. There are very dark people in India, some darker than Africans.

    • Barry K. Jackson September 11, 2017 - 11:17 am Reply

      Oh, well, I guess it depends on your life experiences. If you’ve never had someone white try to talk to you based on these books, you’d never understand how offensive they are.

  • Caryl Jackson September 13, 2017 - 9:22 pm Reply

    I read and learned of Little Black Sambo as a young child. The information that came to me with the story was that the author wrote about India. It is a story and should be treated as that There are All kinds of stories that should not necessarily given any relation to reality .

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  • Ibbs Tha Vybist September 12, 2018 - 9:50 pm Reply

    I’d actually like to read the whole book itself

  • Sandra Cobin September 14, 2018 - 4:23 pm Reply

    I’m 69 and remember this book with others given to us as children. I thought the book was appealing in illustrations with vivid colors and was based on a beautiful family out witting a tiger trying to make a meal of the boy instead chasing him around and around a tree until he melted into butter for pancakes which the boy took home to share.

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    Other names for niggers … Although there is no substitute for the word

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