My Little Black Bookends Tell All

Growing up in rural Lancaster County in the 1950s, I had very little opportunity to meet people of other ethnic groups, but I did have a Little Black Sambo book that introduced me to a culture different from mine. So, I have not always been embarrassed by this book. Fascinated, yes, but embarrassed, no. The picture of the tiger running around an African palm tree as the tiger morphed into a golden round pool of butter mesmerized me as a child, butter that would become one of the ingredients of the pancake recipe. The next page shows Black Sambo’s mother Black Mumbo with her glossy brown arm stirring a mound of melted butter making pancakes. The picture made me hungry. And on the last page:

Little Black Sambo_pancake_web shot

And then they all sat down to supper. Black Mumbo ate twenty-seven pancakes, Black Jumbo ate fifty-five. But little Black Sambo ate a hundred and sixty-nine because he was so hungry!!! (Yes, there are three exclamation marks in the book I am holding.) 

Characters in folktales are typically overblown, with exaggerated details like Little Black Sambo’s super big eyes, through which he gazes at three heaping plates of pancakes with a pot of syrup dribbling all over the table. Obviously, he is ready to stuff his mouth with piles of pancakes.

But there are other tales in the book with the Little Black Sambo cover: The Little Red Hen, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and The Country Mouse and The Town Mouse. Mr. McGregor and the kitchen maid in the “Mouse” story have white faces, but there is no reference to their whiteness. Their race is assumed as white and therefore not particularly notable.

Little Black Sambo_Cover_web shot

I paged through this book recently as we cleared out books in Mother’s house and marveled at the stereotypes about black people back then and was embarrassed by it: A black woman with a big butt and goofy name wearing a “maid” cap on her head, black people eating nothing but fried foods, everyone eating too much.

Another find un-earthed in our sifting through “Stuff” – a pair of book-ends I made in school that portrays black children as a novelty.

blackBookends

Interestingly, my niece Shakeeta, my brother Mark’s daughter, choose these as one of the few things she wanted as a remembrance from her Grandma Longenecker’s house. She hoists them up with a smile here:

KiKiBlackBookends

I guess it’s time I catch up with the times and adjust my ideas about black memorabilia. Singer Anita Pointer certainly has. In an article entitled “A Lesson in History,” (AARP Feb/March 2015) Anita, one of the Pointer Sisters, says she collects black memorabilia so she’ll never forget how her people were once depicted.

BlackMemorabiliaAARP

We grew up in Oakland, California, but when I was 10 we visited my  grandma in Arkansas. I couldn’t believe how people were living there. They had a white and a black part of town, and you stayed off the white side. At the department store, they had colored and white water fountains. I don’t want to ever forget that’s what it was like for us — and collecting black memorabilia is how I do that.   (66)

Like Whoopi Goldberg and Spike Lee, Anita collects black memorabilia as museum pieces including a “Mammy” cookie jar, and a 1970s John Henry whiskey decanter made by Jim Beam. When the prestigious house of Sotheby’s came to appraise her collection, it took a year to sort and categorize it. She comments, “The appraiser said that I could pretty much charge what I want because most of the pieces are one of a kind.”  In the end, Anita Pointer sees her collection of thousands of pieces as part of her personal history. She doesn’t apologize for any of it.

Of course, I’m hanging onto my Little Black Sambo book. It’s a part of my personal history.

Your comments welcome here!

(Answers to Shakespeare puzzlers from April 22, 2015 post below.)

Answer Key2_mod

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30 thoughts on “My Little Black Bookends Tell All

  1. I had a Little Black Sambo book too. It was one I read over and over. There were no black people where I lived so I found it fascinating. I also loved pancakes. Thanks for the memory. I was raised to love people for who they were and not because of the colour of their skin. I don´t believe my parents did anything wrong in giving me that book at the time.

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  2. I had a story album — (an L.P.) one of the stories was Little Black Sambo set to music, and I loved it. (Although, I think they sang a song called it Little Brave Sambo; or, I’ve heard it that way since, and revised my own memory).

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    1. Little Brave Sambo – same number of letters and matches his personality too. I had to smile when you mentioned tricks of memory your recognize. Sometimes I think, “Have I heard it that way? Did I revise my own memory?” That quandary is very familiar to me, Tracy.

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  3. Marian — I remember eating at Sambo’s restaurants as a kid. I don’t know if they’re still around, but assume they’ve had to change things (their decor, for sure!) — in a big way — if they are.

    And I failed, Failed, FAILED the Shakespeare puzzler!

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    1. You jogged my memory here too. I guess Sambo’s restaurants were all over the country back in the day.

      Not to worry one bit about the Shakespeare puzzler. You know the right answers now, so you’re smarter than ever, Laurie!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. At MennoMedia we have similar startling feelings looking back at some of the extremely racist curricula for children produced in the 50s (very white Jesus pictures, for instance). No one knew better. Thankfully we now have those feelings of embarrassment and even shame. I don’t know how I would feel if I were a person of color. Nice that your niece could claim that part of her family heritage with her own perspective!

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    1. In your years in editing and publishing, you have certainly seen lots of cultural changes both in the evolving world of Mennonites and in society in general. Anita Pointer’s perspective seems very sensible to me. “Part of our history – we know better now.”

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  5. Your post arrived yesterday, Friday–totally confused me. 🙂
    When I was in elementary school in Dallas, I remember along with The Three Pigs and Three Billy Goats Gruff, we also did Little Black Sambo stories, along with Brer Rabbit, and other folktales. I don’t remember the actual books, or a story with pancakes. I do remember–was it Little Black Sambo, who took butter to the market for his mother, but it melted all over him? That story fascinated me. Some of the folktales are great, but the racist pictures and some of the way the stories were told were not.

    This week while going through illustrations for my World of the American Revolution book, I had to reject one that was chosen by the staff. It had African-American slaves depicted with ape faces–and it didn’t seem to illustrate the particular topic for which it was intended.

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    1. In this book, the tiger runs circles around a palm tree and is reduced to a pool of butter from which Sambo’s mother makes pancakes. I was surprised to find out that the book was written by a British woman named Helen Bannerman in 1899 and was criticized as early as 1932 because the name Sambo was considered a racial slur.

      About this post popping up on Friday evening: I was surprised too because I thought I had it set to publish Saturday morning, so I’ll have to check the settings. ;-/

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I, too, had a LITTLE BLACK SAMBO book, Marian. My mother’s reaction to the complaints and demands to rewrite HUCKLEBERRY FINN included SAMBO. That book, she said, was a children’s book not intended to harm, but if it did offend, then we would put it away. However, Mark Twain was a classic that educated and revealed, and she sent a letter of protest to the newspaper’s book editor explaining why we should not “rewrite or revise” the author’s book.

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    1. I know from your posts that your mother was a kindly, gentle woman – but she became outspoken on issues of artistic integrity – yay for Mother – no revisionist history (or literature) for her.

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  7. Little Black Sambo was a favorite book of mine as a child and I still have one today. I treasure it. I don’t understand the criticism or censor of the book as being racial. In my copy, he was a little boy from India, not a boy from Africa or the south.
    The first part of the quiz I got 100%, I’ll not tell your what I got on the second part! 😉

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    1. You are right. The illustrations depict an African family, but in the original Sambo came from India.

      You get an A for affort (not a misspelling!) and for trying both parts, Anita. I bet you had a good English teacher too + you’re also good at rhyming. 😉

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  8. Marian … I get that some feel that Little Black Sambo is stereotyping. But I don’t think I ever looked at it that way when I was a child. Didn’t he turn the tables on the tiger? Ingenious. Then the tiger ran around the tree until it turned into butter which was used on delicious pancakes. The amount of food was definitely hyperbole (excessive exaggeration) and very amusing.

    None of my collectibles – even the Beanie Babies (only a few) – would attract any collector. 😉

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    1. Like you, I saw the creative plot twists and fantastic food amounts as entertaining. Only in retrospect is the skewed attitude toward race apparent.

      My collectibles are mostly blog fodder. I don’t think very many have high monetary value either, Judy.

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  9. I don’t remember any sambo books over here Marian . I haven’t a clue how old you are , I would say about 21 with you fine looks and youthful poise , but from the way you speak you may be a touch older . I have a sister who was born in the 50s she may have knowledge of Sambo books I will ask her . She looks about 21 and has a youthful poise too. I was a child of the 60s so maybe those books weren’t so popular by then .
    Thank goodness things have moved on in the 21 century attitudes are so different …I like it that way .
    Cherryx

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    1. I’m older than your sister, (probably more than just a touch!) but try to keep young in attitude. That’s why I hang out with youngsters on my blog like you, for instance. You have a clever way of expressing yourself, and I always look forward to your comments, Cherry.

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  10. What memories this post jogged loose, Marian, I used to have a Little Black Sambo book too. But it was stolen by relatives when I went to live in Europe for a few years. I’d completely forgotten it until now. Thanks for the memories, and yes, for the reminder how things have changed for the better. I love that black Americans are saving some of these pieces – future generations won’t forget.

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    1. Here’s to jogging memories loose, Cynthia. Do you think those relatives want to return the book? May be more trouble than it’s worth . . .

      Actually, I wouldn’t have remembered my Little Black Sambo book either except that it was among a stack of children’s books uncovered when we went through Mother’s things last fall.

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  11. Wonderful post. I lived in Missouri as a child and it wasn’t much different from Arkansas. A railroad track ran down the middle of the town with the poor blacks on one side and the poor whites on the other. Further away from the tracks, both neighborhoods became more affluent.

    I had that book, too, and I remember all those stories. I also remember a book called Manly Manners and a Mother Goose book. My mother got rid of everything except a few. I think I still have Manly Manners. He put his toys and books away before he went to bed and would not approve of how messy my house is today. But I will clean up before I go to bed to please him and myself.

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    1. I have never heard of Manly Manners, but I remember the Goofus and Gallant pieces in children’s magazines. Everything was so black and white then – the culture was not set up to deal with gray areas.

      Clean up only to please yourself, Elaine 😉

      I know I have to clean up writing clutter (i.e., hide it in the ottoman) before my sister comes to visit next week. I used to be such a neatnik but that fell by the wayside when I caught the writing bug. It’s just not that important, is it?

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  12. How times have changed since we were children. Looking back it does seem bad but, at the time, I don’t believe there was malice or unkindness in it. Even so, I’m glad the days of segregation are a bad memory.

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    1. The books reflected a limited view of race, viewing others as novelties, and I agree there was no unkindness intended. I did not know until research for this post that the author was British. Thanks for reflecting with me, Marie!

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