Arre O Sambo!

Somewhere in the dim recesses of the Babu’s (brown) unconscious lurks a white supremacist, clearly. As a child, I read Little Black Sambo and the Brer Rabbit books with sublime indifference to their clearly racist overtones, accepting Little Black Sambo and his Mumbo and his Jumbo in the same spirit as I accepted Beatrix Potter’s waistcoat-wearing rabbits. It was only as an adult, when good white critics pointed out just how politically incorrect these books were, that I began looking for scars on my psyche and someone to sue.
Now a Tokyo publisher is reissuing Little Black Sambo, which I have no problem with–let the next generation take its chances with psychic scars, forsooth.
But this defence is no defence:
“Zuiunsha President Tomio Inoue has said he believes it is worthwhile to pass on the book to the next generation, adding, ‘I think it’s necessary to think deeply about what constitutes discrimination. In India, ‘sambo’ generally refers to a child’s name.’ [emphasis mine]”
I hate to contradict Tomio Inoue, but he’s dead wrong; sambo isn’t even a slang term for child and Sambo certainly isn’t a common child’s name in India.
Here’s one definition of sambo:
“stereotypical name for male black person (now only derogatory), 1818, Amer.Eng., probably a different word from sambo (1); like many such words (Cuffy, Rastus, etc.) a common personal name among U.S. blacks in the slavery days (first attested 1704 in Boston), probably from an African source, cf. Foulah sambo “uncle,” or a similar Hausa word meaning “second son.” Used without conscious racism or contempt until circa World War II. When the word fell from polite usage, collateral casualties included the enormously popular children’s book “The Story of Little Black Sambo” (by Helen Bannerman), which actually is about an East Indian child, and the Sambo’s Restaurant chain, a U.S. pancake-specialty joint originally opened in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1957 (the name supposedly from a merging of the names of the founders, Sam Battistone and Newell “Bo” Bohnett, but the chain’s decor and advertising leaned heavily on the book), which once counted 1,200 units coast-to-coast. Civil rights agitation against it began in 1970s and the chain collapsed, though the original restaurant still is open. Many of the defunct restaurants were taken over by rival Denny’s.”
There’s a 1996 discussion archived on the Net, where a defence of Helen Bannerman provoked fairly heated responses.
“Posterity has not been kind to Helen Bannerman. She was an educated woman. She was well aware of what she was doing in placing a black boy in India. She was creating fantasy.
It is ironic that there has been a thread on the list about fantasy and the resistance of children to it, and yet, for so long it has gone unrecognized that “Little Black Sambo” is fantasy, set neither in Africa or India. Let me quote a couple of passages from Elizabeth Hay’s now out-of-print biography, “Sambo Sahib: The Story of Little Black Sambo and Helen Bannerman”, (Barnes & Noble, 1981).
The first is from a review which appeared in The Spectator on 12/2/1899, the time of the original publication of LBS. The review indicates that at the time of publication the book was perceived as fantasy, a perception that was lost fairly quickly:
[The book] “was not written with one eye on parents and guardians, or the inconsistency of mixing up the African type of black with delightful adventures with tigers in an Indian jungle would never have been allowed to pass. As it is, Little Black Sambo makes his simple and direct appeal in the great realm of make-believe without paying the slightest attention to the unities or caring in the least about anything but the amusement of the little boys and girls for whom he was so obviously created.” (p. 28)”


  1. While I do no intend to defend Tomio Inoue, perhaps what he is referring to is a slightly modified version of “Shambhu”, one of the names of Shiva. I know that some people, at least in South India, have a cry that sounds similar to “Sambo Shankara”. Though why any mother would allow her child to go under the name of Sambo is a moot point.

  2. Hmmm. Shambhu. Or Samba. Or Sambar, as in idli-dosa, or sambhar as in the barking deer. The options are endless 🙂 Still think Inoue doesn’t have a clue, though.

  3. In my many years of South Indian existence, I have never heard of any child called Sambo. There was a popular Tamil song (of the ‘super song, macha’ variety) though, in the 90s, which went like this “Sambo sambo, sambo sambo / Sayangalam vambo vambo”. No idea as to what sambo meant according to the lyricist. Except of course that it rhymed with vambo and ensured the poetic quality of the song on at least one count. The latter part of the line could however be translated as “Evening-time trouble trouble”. Perhaps an (un)intended reference to the adventures of Little Black Sambo!!

  4. There have been a few characterizations of Japanese as “nips, zipperheads, gooks,buck toothed & blind, the cong, charlie, slant eyes and shitmouths etc..” These came home with my father who served in vietnam. Its a damn good thing he didn’t write a childrens book based on these terms. Can you imagine the illustrations? rednecks ( a race of homosexuals, pedophiles & serial killers) have never been ashamed of profiting on the negative images of anothers culture. tomio “the homo” inoue, is a gutless heathen jap, who is only trying to appease his homosexual master and conqueror at the expense of another race. How funny that both japs and white residents of the northern hemisphere are suffering the exact same rate of negative birth rate. While the sambos of the world are overtaking you. Still funny?

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