A love for black children’s books
  • Readers ask about black dolls
  • A storybook about a black boy named Nicodemus
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    Auction Finds

    The real-life “Little Black Sambo”

    When I saw the title of the book, I’m sure I let out a silent groan. I was so sick and tired of seeing “Little Black Sambo” caricatures of a little black boy and his parents in a world that showed the ignorance of the people who perverted their humanity.

    Most of the time, I passed by the books, but I could see from a short distance that this one appeared different. As I got closer to it on the auction table, I saw something I had not seen before on the cover of a “Sambo” book. The little boy had dark skin, but he – didn’t – look – African American.

    His face was that of an intrepid little brown-skinned boy with straight hair being eyed by a large tiger. Had some illustrator created a black child as he really looked?

    "Little Black Sambo"

    The 1949 cover of RCA Victor's "Little Black Sambo" shows the boy as an Indian child.

    Amazed, I picked up the book and opened it to the first page searching for an answer. There, I saw that this was the real “Little Black Sambo” who lived in southern India, and not the American South or Africa. It was a decided departure from most of the books published in the early 20th century in the United States (and some other countries) – and even from author Helen Bannerman’s own illustrations.

    Her drawings – seen here in a circa 1900 copy of the book – presented caricatures of the little Indian boy and his family that closely resembled the distortions that would find their way into many others, authorized or otherwise.

    I have what I suspect is a reprint of a 1923 version of the book, along with a 1948 Viewmaster reel. I also have a 1996 re-telling of the story titled “Sam and the Tigers” by Julius Lester and illustrated by one of my favorites Jerry Pinkney.

    "Little Black Sambo"

    Little Black Sambo and his parents in the RCA Victor 1949 book.

    This was the first book I’d stumbled on at auction with the characters actually resembling the people whom the story was about. And on this day, it wasn’t the only one. I found another “Sambo” book with natural images of an Indian boy that also revealed his culture.

    The first was a read, look and listen book distributed in 1949 by RCA Victor along with two 78 RPM records, which were missing now. The story was read by Paul Wing, who with an orchestra narrated a number of children’s records for the company. He would read as the child followed along, with the RCA trademark dog Little Nipper barking when it was time to turn the page.

    This cover was a far cry from a 1939 RCA cover for the “Little Black Sambo’s Jungle Band.” That illustration is closer to what I usually see on the awful book covers.


    Left, a 1950 version of the cover of RCA Victor's "Litte Black Sambo's Jungle Band," and right, a 1939 version. From kiddierecords.com.

    By 1950, the jungle band book had returned the boy to his roots.

    RCA Victor was among several record companies that produced record-and-book sets for children. They created their own branded series and hired celebrities – James Stewart, Shirley Temple and Captain Kangaroo’s Bob Keeshan were among them – to narrate the stories.

    RCA created the “Little Nipper” series, using the pup to appeal to young listeners and enlisting Wing to read to them. The series ran from 1944 on RPM records and then on 45s around the 1950s.

    Wing was pretty well known in the late 1930s as host of his own radio show called “Paul Wing’s Spelling Bee,” which Milton Bradley made into a board game in 1938. The show later found its way onto television in the 1940s, and Wing became one of the first TV game-show hosts.

    "Little Black Sambo"

    Illustrations from early verisons of "Little Black Sambo": At left, the cover from a circa 1900 book and at right, inside pages from an 1899 edition. From wikipedia and heritagebookshop.com.

    “Little Black Sambo” was written in 1899 by Bannerman, a Scottish woman who lived in southern India for 30 years with her doctor-husband. She wrote and illustrated stories for her daughters, and came up with this one while on a long railroad journey to India from Scotland where they were being educated.

    This story was about an Indian boy who gave up his clothes to tigers so they wouldn’t eat him, and watched as they chased each other in a circle – after an argument about who was the grandest  – until their bodies melted into butter.

    The book was first published in the United States in 1900 (here’s an authorized circa 1900 version by the U.S. publisher). Unauthorized publishers treated it like a free-for-all, retaining most of the storyline (sometimes without attribution to Bannerman) but illustrating the characters to fit their own views of what African American children and their families looked liked. Looking at the illustrations of Indians in Bannerman’s book, they may have gotten their cue from her.

    "Little Black Sambo"

    The first page of the 1950 Whitman Publishing Co.'s "Little Black Sambo."

    The first book to return Bannerman’s characters to their original home came in 1950 from Whitman Publishing Co., according to the 2000 book “Comrades at Odds.” Years before, though, Whitman had produced its on horrid “Sambo” books.

    That Whitman book was the other “Little Black Sambo” book on the auction table. The little boy and his parents were obviously Indians – him wearing traditional slippers or juttis, and his father wearing a turban. Like Bannerman’s, the beginning of the story did not mention where the boy lived. The RCA Victor version did, however:

    “Once there was a little boy who lived in the middle of a deep jungle, ‘way off in India, and his name was LITTLE BLACK SAMBO.”

    "Little Black Sambo"

    An inside page of "Little Black Sambo" published in 1950 by Whitman Publishing Co. shows the parents as Indians in their native attire.



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