(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a simple, illustrated children’s story about a young Indian boy who outsmarts four tigers that threaten to eat him. After Sambo saves himself by giving each tiger an article of his gaudy outfit, the tigers argue among themselves over which of them is the grandest. Eventually, the tigers chase each other around a tree so fast that they simply blur into butter, which Sambo takes home and uses on 169 pancakes that his mother, Black Mumbo, makes for him.

Long widely popular among children, this book came under attack in the United States during the 1960’s for what many people claimed were its racist illustrations and generally negative portrayals of black people. In late 1964 a Nebraska school superintendent removed Little Black Sambo from the open shelves of libraries in his school system, on the grounds that it was inherently racist. After the book was placed on reserve and made available only as optional material, it faded from circulation.

In 1972, shortly after Bannerman’s book was republished in England, The London Times published an essay discussing censorship of children’s books that were charged with fostering undesirable viewpoints. The Central Committee of Teachers Against Racism complained that Sambo depicted a stereotypical image of African American gluttony because of a scene in which Sambo eats 169 pancakes. Right-wing activists insisted that the book did not patronize or degrade blacks despite stereotypical illustrations of flashy multicolored clothing, bare feet, and grossly exaggerated physical features.

By the 1970’s Bannerman’s book had disappeared from public and school library shelves. Many of the arguments for and against Little Black Sambo formed the basis of guidelines for determining racism and sexism in children’s books. These guidelines generally included examination of the illustrations, storyline, lifestyles portrayed, relationships described, and racial or ethnic identity of the heroes and heroines.

During the era of slavery in the United States, “Sambo” was a pejorative term for a slave who was satisfied with his servitude. Since then the word has had negative connotations among African Americans. Popular opposition to the word resurfaced during the 1980’s when the Sambo’s restaurant chain was forced to change its name.