“Little Black Sambo, Sambo, Sambo/His face and hands are completely black/Even his butt is completely black.”
Word of nursery-schoolers in Saitama Prefecture chanting a “Little Black Sambo” song — “akin to what might be taught by a white supremacist group” — spread online recently, prompting 21st century-style activism: Facebook postings, blogosphere commotion, an online petition, CCed e-mails to Tokorozawa City Hall. In a phone call, a Midori Hoikuen nursery school employee admitted to having read and then re-enacted — with toddlers — the best-selling children’s book “Little Black Sambo” (known here as “Chibikuro Sanbo”). The re-enactment’s song lyrics, as printed above, were allegedly translated by a biracial child’s concerned parent and then uploaded onto Facebook.
Since the first, Victorian-era printing of “Little Black Sambo,” its pejorative title and caricature illustrations — pitch-black faces with bulging red lips, white balloon eyes — have been a perennial bone of contention for civil-rights proponents in the U.S. and, later, Japan. Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes described the text in 1932 as “amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at.”
What ought to be done to address this lingering pain? While some online petitioners advocate for politically correct, bowdlerized versions of the book, many bloggers and civil-rights groups demand a Japanese-edition printing ban. Ray Bradbury, in his novel “Fahrenheit 451,” proposed a more incendiary solution: “Colored people don’t like ‘Little Black Sambo.’ Burn it.”
At a glance, “Little Black Sambo” would seem a fine candidate for the sort of kindle that predated Amazon.com, if not for the fact that many readers have interpreted the book as being racially affirmative, even heroic.
“Some children’s literature scholars consider (it) to be one of the first children’s picture books to feature a clever and resourceful nonwhite protagonist,” wrote Illinois State University professor Jan Susina.
It is not surprising then that a slew of nonwhite bloggers on blog.goo.ne.jp, as well as participants in a Tokyo Women’s Christian University poll, have found “Little Black Sambo” to be positive, cute — and not discriminatory.
The majority of Japanese encounter “Little Black Sambo” through a reprinted 1953 Iwanami Shoten edition entitled “Chibikuro Sanbo.” The title’s faithful rendering in Japanese — a language without the word “sambo” — may appear as innocuous as the 1986 Kodansha Manga Award-winning “Chibi Maruko-chan,” which was named after “Chibikuro Sanbo.”
Japanese often peg foreign Sanbo-related allegations of racism as historically and linguistically reductive. An anonymous writer on blog.goo.ne.jp argues that the words “sambo,” “smart” and “talent” are all used in Japanese differently than in English, so it follows that “there is no reason that the word ‘sanbo,’ even if not part of the Japanese language until translated from ‘sambo,’ ought to take on the English meaning.”
Word inflections, of course, change when diction passes between languages, but meanings also rapidly transform even in a single language. A Peter Pan Records audio version of “Little Black Sambo” released in 1950 avoided the controversial word “black,” opting for “Little Brave Sambo” printed across the vinyl sleeve.
In 1988, the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, among other civil rights groups, pressured Japanese publishers to pull “Little Black Sambo” off of shelves — a ban not enacted in the U.S. despite the book’s ready availability. For such reasons, Masahisa Nadamoto, Kyoto Sango University professor of cultural studies, wrote in an essay that “the very idea of a printing ban is ridiculous.”
In 2005, after a 17-year period of prohibition, the Japanese publisher Zuiunsha re-launched “Little Black Sambo.” Zuiunsha sells a copy of the 1953 Iwanami Shoten version based upon an 1899 text authored by Helen Bannerman.
Bannerman, a Scot, wrote the book on a train ride to Madras, where she lived with her daughters and husband, who was researching the bubonic plague in colonial India. Bannerman’s hand-bound narrative, intended only to amuse her children, told the tale of an Indian boy named Black Sambo outsmarting a group of tigers and then making pancakes out of them. In the book’s conclusion, Black Sambo achieves the gastronomic feat of devouring 169 pancakes.
Black Sambo’s binge has inspired others to do likewise, notably at a Santa Barbara, Calif., restaurant named Sambo’s, which serves a “Bengal Tiger Special” and “Sambo’s Short Stack Homemade Buttermilk Pancakes.” The Sambo’s Web site, in its defense, sums up the book’s controversy as follows: “Sambo became to some a symbol of racism and to others he has remained what he has always been — a hero.”
This tension between the protagonist as hero or “symbol of racism” often directs scholarly attention — particularly in African-American studies and children’s literature departments — to the author’s original intentions.
“Is ‘Little Black Sambo’ maliciously racist?” University of Massachusetts Amherst Professor Emeritus Julius Lester asked. “Not at all. It is a product of its times, and as such is rather benign. Bannerman does not use dialect and malapropisms. She does not deliberately or even consciously ridicule Little Black Sambo.”
Whether Bannerman’s text was deliberately racist or not, the illustrations are another matter. Popular Japanese editions portray not Indians, but African-Americans drawn by Austrian-American immigrant Frank Dobias in 1927. The illustrations, perhaps influenced by minstrel shows and vaudeville, caricature blacks as childlike, lazy and indigenous to jungles.
Activist and Japan Times columnist Debito Arudou uploaded a parody onto his Web site, debito.org, titled “Little Yellow Jap” (“Chibi Kiiro Jappu”). Arudou asks, “What if your race was depicted in the same way as in this book?”
Redolent of Audrey Hepburn’s bucktoothed Japanese neighbor played by Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Arudou’s characters have enormous eyeglasses, exaggeratedly yellow skin and big front incisors. In Arudou’s parody, the original’s tigers become monkeys, butter is miso, one character is garbed in sumo getup and another in a Hello Kitty apron.
Arudou’s artwork succeeds, like the book it lampoons, in being both somewhat offensive and also kind of cute. This conflation is important because cuteness directs feelings of fondness and intimacy toward items of all kinds, not just puppies. Indeed, throughout “Little Black Sambo” there are numerous physical characteristics that humans are biologically programmed to find cute. According to Austrian Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz, these include “predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region.”
Spokesman Kazuo Tomatsu of Hello Kitty’s Sanrio Co. said in 1988 that a doll line based on the book’s caricatures was designed “to be kawaii (cute).” Though production of Sanrio’s “Sambo” line was halted due to international criticism, key chains as well as other items bearing an English “Little Black Sambo” logo remain for sale. Similarly, the “Little Black Sambo” text can still be found on bookstore racks all over the world, courtesy of HarperCollins and other major publishing houses.
Approximately 500 people, many living in countries where the book is readily available, have signed an online petition stating: “We demand that Zuiunsha stop the publishing and marketing of ‘Chibikuro Sambo’ (in Japan).” Brian Robinson, an American petitioner, wrote, “I will no longer support Japanese establishments or purchase their products — until I see a change.” One must wonder if he is also boycotting all businesses in the United States, where the book was illustrated and continues to be a children’s best-seller.
Another American used the online ban petition as a forum to protest censorship. “I am for the publication of ‘Sambo,’ ” wrote Jeff of New York. “Freedom of speech is important! Keep the book!”
If Jeff of New York were to voyage across the Pacific Ocean, Article 21 of Japan’s Constitution would guarantee him “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press, and all other forms of expression.” The Constitution, written primarily by “Gaijin Shogun” Douglas MacArthur, has never been amended and is not apt to be rewritten in a way that will incite the fury of civil rights groups.
Since banning the book would be unconstitutional, some have attempted to supersede it with a politically correct version. One such version is “The Story of Little Black Sambo” (Handprint Books, 2007), which does not bear a drastically altered title, apparently for educational purposes.
However, Randall Kennedy, Harvard Law School professor and author of “Nigger,” sees a didactic role for the unexpurgated text. “If they’re educating people about the ‘Little Black Sambo’ controversy, then I don’t have a problem with it,” he told the Boston Globe. “We need to know about our history.”
Indeed, we probably do need to know our past in order to consign oppression and racism — not just its incessantly changing language — to history. We also need to creatively revamp infrastructure development in regions suffering from the legacy of racism: poverty.
Whether or not this book is innocent of bigotry will continue to be debated, but in the meantime it may be a good idea to foster a critical atmosphere in which “Little Black Sambo,” held in the hands of a competent teacher, can educate children while charming their imaginations. If you teach, get a debate rolling. Bring a copy of “Little Black Sambo” to class along with Arudou’s illustrations. Let’s not be hasty in making pre-Amazon.com kindling out of a potentially valuable pedagogic tool.
On the other hand, reading this book to potty-training toddlers out of context with the aid of the chant “Even his butt is completely black” hardly seems likely to foster racial tolerance among children in Japan.
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