The Story of Little Black Sambo, a children's book by Helen Bannerman, a Scot who lived for 32 years in Madras in southern India, was first published in London in 1899. (An American edition of the book was illustrated by Florence White Williams.) In the tale, an Indian boy named Sambo prevails over a group of hungry tigers. The little boy has to give his colourful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella to four tigers so they will not eat him. Sambo recovers the clothes when the jealous, conceited tigers chase each other around a tree until they are reduced to a pool of delicious melted butter.[1] The story was a children's favourite for half a century, but then became controversial due to the use of the word sambo, a racial slur in some countries,[2] and the illustrations, which are reminiscent of "darky iconography".



The book has a controversial history. The original illustrations by Bannerman showed a caricatured Southern Indian or Tamil child. The story may have contributed to the use of the word "sambo" as a racial slur. The book's success led to many pirated, inexpensive, widely available versions that incorporated popular stereotypes of "black" people. In 1932 Langston Hughes criticised Little Black Sambo as a typical "pickaninny" storybook which was hurtful to black children, and gradually the book disappeared from lists of recommended stories for children.[3]

In 1942, Saalfield Publishing Company released a version of Little Black Sambo illustrated by Ethel Hays.[4] During the mid 20th century, however, some American editions of the story, including a 1950 audio version on Peter Pan Records, changed the title to the racially neutral Brave Little Sambo.

The book has been controversial in Japan as well, both for racism and piracy. Little Black Sambo (the Japanese title is Chibikuro Sambo) was first published in Japan by Iwanami Shoten Publishing in 1953. The book was a pirated version of the original, and it contained drawings by Frank Dobias that had appeared in a US edition published by Macmillan Publishers in 1927. Sambo was illustrated as an African boy rather than as an Indian boy. Although it did not contain Bannerman's original illustrations, the pirated book was long mistaken for the original version in Japan. It sold over 1,000,000 copies before it was pulled off the shelves in 1988 after being accused of depicting racist characterisations. Just after Iwanami's success, most of the Japanese publishers, including Kodansha and Shogakukan, the two largest publishers in Japan, published their versions of pirated Little Black Sambo. In 1988, all these publishers followed Iwanami and withdrew their books from the market altogether.

Modern versions

In 1996, noted illustrator Fred Marcellino observed that the story itself contained no racist overtones and produced a re-illustrated version, The Story of Little Babaji, which changes the characters' names but otherwise leaves the text unmodified. This version was a best-seller.

Julius Lester, in his Sam and the Tigers, also published in 1996, recast "Sam" as a hero of the mythical Sam-sam-sa-mara, where all the characters were named "Sam."

A modern printing with the original title, in 2003, substituted more racially sensitive illustrations by Christopher Bing, in which, for example, Sambo is no longer so inky black. It was chosen for the Kirkus 2003 Editor's Choice list. Some critics were still unsatisfied. Dr Alvin F. Poussaint said of the 2003 publication:

"I don’t see how I can get past the title and what it means. It would be like . . . trying to do 'Little Black Darky' and saying, 'As long as I fix up the character so he doesn't look like a darky on the plantation, it's OK.'"

In 1997, a Japanese retelling of the story, Chibikuro Sampo ("sampo" means "taking a walk" in Japanese, "Chibi" means "shorty" and "kuro" means black), replaced the protagonist with a black Labrador puppy that goes for a stroll in the jungle. It was published by Mori Marimo from Kitaooji Shobo Publishing in Kyoto.

Bannerman's original was first published with a translation of Masahisa Nadamoto by Komichi Shobo Publishing, Tokyo, in 1999.

In 2004, a Little Golden Book version was published, The Boy and the Tigers, with new names and illustrations by Valeria Petrone. The boy is called Little Rajani.

The Iwanami version, with its controversial Dobias's illustrations and without the proper copyright, was re-released in April 2005 in Japan by a Tokyo based publisher Zuiunsya, because Iwanami's copyright expired after fifty years of its first appearance.

Other media

Script error The Chilean children's band Mazapan made a musical version titled Negrito Sambo (Little Black Sambo in Spanish).

The American play Spinning Into Butter takes its title from the story, which is discussed in a scene.

The comic book Jack of Fables published by the DC label Vertigo makes reference to Little Black Sambo in the character Sam, an elderly black groundskeeper at the Golden Boughs Retirement Community, a prison used to incarcerate Fables, a term referring to the incarnate storybook characters who make up much of the cast of the comic book. When first introduced, "Sam" was unable to remember whether or not he was a Fable, due to his story being nearly forgotten by the general public. His identity was confirmed when he escaped Golden Boughs, and several tigers used to track prisoners were transformed into butter as they pursued him.[1]

A cartoon version of the Little Black Sambo story was produced in 1935 as part of Ub Iwerks' ComiColor series. Audio from this was sampled by Public Enemy and used on their Fear of a Black Planet album. [1]

A Little Black Sambo children's 45 audio "read along" boxed set record was released by RCA victor in the 50's that had several illustrations and was designed to be read to children.

In Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, Little Black Sambo is mentioned as an example of books that are burned because people find them offensive.

In Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, the narrator is called Sambo by "a blonde man" after the Battle Royal has been fought, and the participants are preparing to grab for prize money from a square rug. Sambo dolls are also sold on the streets as an example of stereotypes of Black Americans.[2] The narrator also stays with a woman named Mary Rambo, rhyming with Sambo, who is in many ways stereotypical. (Most of the names in this book are symbolic.)

In the anime Pani Poni Dash!, in Himeko's dream (episode 12), Nekokami offers Mesousa butter, when in reality, it was really a container of three miniature tigers chasing each other around a palm tree to make butter. Nekokami also gives him a pair of shoes, a coat, an umbrella, and tells him that 169 slices of toast are coming and he must wait for them. (At the end of the original book, Sambo eats 169 pancakes.)

In the movie The Green Mile, the psychotic murderer nicknamed 'Billy the Kid' calls prison guard Brutus Howell 'Little Black Sambo' after spitting a chewed up moonpie in his face


A popular U.S. restaurant chain of the 1960s and 1970s, Sambo's, borrowed characters from the book (including Sambo and the tigers) for promotional purposes, although the Sambo name was originally a combination of the founders' nicknames: Sam (Sam Battistone) and Bo (Newell Bohnett). Nonetheless, the controversy about the book led to accusations of racism that contributed to the 1,117-restaurant chain's demise in the early 1980s. Images inspired by the book (now considered by some racially insensitive) were common interior decorations in the restaurants. Though portions of the original chain re-named themselves "No Place Like Sam's" to try to forestall closure, all but the original restaurant in Santa Barbara, California had closed by 1982.

See also


  1. Jack of Fables #1-5
  2. The WPA dolls of Milwaukee

Further reading

  • Barbara Bader, "Sambo, Babaji, and Sam," The Horn Book Magazine. September-October 1996, vol. 72, no. 5, p. 536.
  • Phyllis Settecase Barton, Pictus Orbis Sambo: A Publishing History, Checklist and Price Guide for The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899–1999) Centennial Collector's Guide. Pictus Orbis Press, Sun City, CA.

External links

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