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An Apology for Little Black Sambo
I have a confession to make. As a child, my oldest daughter's favorite book was Helen Bannerman's "Little Black Sambo." I didn't know some people found it racist and offensive. This is an apology (in the defense sense of the word) for Little Black Sambo.
When I first read it to my child, it was available the shelf. Later, it was challenged, banned and removed. But every time we visited the library thereafter, and that was a lot, my toddler would demand "Little Black Sambo" when asked what stories she wanted. That earned some baleful stares. Like I was an abusive, bigoted mom for reading my child her favorite book.
I had to request the contraband book from the librarian and she'd have to fetch it from the back room. It was as though I was supposed to feel embarrassed. Occasionally, I'd mumble an excuse, "Molly loves it so" which sometimes earned further hard looks. You'd think I was buying a Penthouse for my baby and that it should be wrapped in brown paper.
Now I'm not going to presume to tell others what should and shouldn't offend them. We all have raw spots. Should they be able to tell me what to read? I don't think so, but that's a subject for another day. I just didn't (still don't) see anything racially profiling about Sambo. Granted I'm not black. Maybe if I'd lived with years of discrimination, I would. But if it sent such a negative message, I wouldn't have read it and Molly wouldn't have liked it so much. Even as a young child, she had empathy and a superb bullying radar. She'd come out guns blazing if she thought someone was being threatened or shamed.
And I certainly meant no offense. Quite the opposite. I just love Sambo. He's adorable, smart, diplomatic and creative. How much chutzpah does it take to face down a phalanx of tigers and walk away unscathed? How much ingenuity does it take to get your cool clothes back without hurting anyone or getting hurt? Little Black Sambo exemplifies brain over brawn. He's a role model for non-violent bully-busting and proactive problem-solving. And we are told that a child shall lead us.
I don't think Bannerman wrote it to make any negative statement. She describes Sambo lovingly and with esteem. I've read a lot of kids' books. You might say analyzing children's literature is my vita opus. Many kids in books are caricatures or mini adults. They're annoying, precocious, self-righteous, spoiled, sycophantic or not credible. Or all of the above.
Sambo is none of these. He's got all the charm, innocence, tenacity and joie de vivre of childhood, none of the tediousness and an extra dose of common sense and sagacity thrown in. He'd make a great world ambassador. Instead of censoring Sambo we need to celebrate him! Not comfortable with Bannerman's version? Try Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney's "Sam and the Tigers." Their character has all the moxy and pizzazz but the images aren't so stereotypical. But I still love Sambo best just as he was originally written.