Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman, first published in 1899. Sambo is a Tamil boy who encounters four hungry tigers, and surrenders his colourful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella so they will not eat him. The tigers chase each other around a tree until they are reduced to a pool of melted butter; Sambo then recovers his clothes and his mother makes pancakes of the butter. The story was a children’s favourite for half a century until the word Sambo was deemed a racial slur in some countries, and the illustrations considered reminiscent of “darky iconography.” Both text and illustrations have undergone considerable revision since.

The book has a controversial history. The original illustrations by Bannerman showed a caricatured Southern Indian or Tamil child. The story is set in British-occupied India, not Africa, but American versions used stereotypic black images that may have contributed to the use of the word “sambo” as a racial slur. Frequently banned, Historicist chronicles the controversy as it played out in Toronto schools.

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. Julius Lester retold the story in Sam and the Tigers, an effort to make it more palatable and sensitive to racist overtones. In the introduction, Jerry Pinkney, the illustrator, discusses his own conflicted feelings about a story which was offensive, yet was the only book he could find as a child with a main charactre was also a black child.

An animated version of the story (available on YouTube) was produced in 1935.

In 2006, Project Gutenberg provided a downloadable version and an online version.

Sambo Banned   Sambo Bank
A Sambo Doll
Updated 20 November 2019.