Sunday, November 05, 2006

Black is Black

When I was a child, one of the books I enjoyed reading was the story of Little Black Sambo, about a boy who outsmarts four tigers. As a child, I was unaware of any racial overtones, and thought that the title was a description of the boy, not unlike The Five Chinese Brothers.

Of course, then you grow up, and you realize that Sambo is a derisive term for blacks, and you hear that Little Black Sambo is a racist book. At least, that's what I'd heard. But is it?

I looked up the story on Wikidpedia, where I found out a few things about the book. First of all, it's set in India, not Africa. This makes sense, when you consider it's about tigers, and makes reference to "ghee" - butter. The author, Helen Bannerman, was a Scot who lived in India when she wrote the book. The story is about an Indian boy, who is given European "darky iconography," and hence looks black. Unfortunately, this information didn't make it across the Atlantic with the book, so in Jim Crow America, people saw the story of Little Black Sambo, they associated the image they saw with the blackface theatre to which they were accustomed, and adopted the term Sambo to be a racist word for blacks.

So what we ended up with is a book that is racist because it contains a name that didn't become a racist term until ignorant people misinterpreted it. It's such a shame that an innocuous children's book had to be the product of such a thing, especially a book about a clever boy.

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