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.