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New Takes on an Old Story

From Delightful Hero to Symbol of Racism and Back, Little Black Sambo Has Been Reborn Many Times in the Last Century

September 08, 1996|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time there was a little boy who saw tigers turn into butter. He filled children's eyes with delight but, in time, also pain. Little Black Sambo became a symbol of racism in children's literature. And so it was that he was banished from schools and libraries throughout the land.

As time passed, grown-ups who recalled only joy upon reading the story as children turned their backs on it, sometimes feeling shame that they had been blind to the insulting, stereotypical caricatures, the demeaning names.

The story has been told and retold of how tigers robbed a little boy of his new, brightly colored clothes then fell victim to their own greed and vanity. In earlier versions, illustrations became more offensive than the original, published in 1899. They then splintered in many directions, some more sensitive than others, says Phyllis Marquart, whose "Little Black Sambo: A Closer Look," was published in 1976 by the Council on Interracial Books for Children.

In one depiction, Marquart says, Sambo was white and had red hair and blue eyes. In another, his name was changed to Rama Krishna.

His transformation continues with the release of two books this month: "Sam and the Tigers" (Dial Books) and "The Story of Little Babaji" (Michael di Capua Books at HarperCollins).

The two books are vastly different and represent the range in interpretation of Helen Bannerman's original story.

"Sam and the Tigers," the work of author Julius Lester and illustrator Jerry Pinkney, both African Americans, is set in the make-believe land of Sam-sam-sa-mara, where animals and people live in harmony and everyone is equal, even by name. They all are named Sam.

The tale is told in a Southern black storytelling voice. The central character, Sam, is black, but his parents no longer are Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo. They, too, are merely Sam.

In "The Story of Little Babaji," illustrated by Fred Marcellino, the setting and the characters are Indian. Babaji's mother is Mamaji, his father, Papaji. Except for their names, Bannerman's words are unchanged, and she is credited with authorship.

*

That the two works occurred simultaneously came as a surprise to both camps. Secrecy was so tight at HarperCollins that only a handful of people knew about the Babaji project, referred to in-house as "Project X."

Michael di Capua feared that the book would be prejudged in the volatile light of "Little Black Sambo" and decided that no one should know about the work until they could hold the Marcellino book in their hands.

What the projects share is the closeness in age of those involved: Lester, 57; Pinkney, 56; Marcellino, 56; and di Capua, 58. All four read the book as children, and when they reexamined it as adults, they saw beneath its demeaning portrayals what they considered to be a unique, hidden charm.

The differences begin immediately after "Once upon a time," reflecting different takes on ongoing debates: Did Bannerman intend Sambo to be of African ancestry? And was the story set in India?

"For me, it isn't an issue," says Marcellino of the intended setting. "The fact of the matter is that I didn't choose to set the book in India, Helen Bannerman chose to set the book in India. It's incontrovertible."

He bases his interpretation on the fact that Bannerman, a Scot, lived in India, wrote the story in India, included tigers (which are native to India but not Africa) and included in her text a parenthetical translation of melted butter, describing it as "ghi, as it is called in India."

He and di Capua say that Sambo appeared African because of Bannerman's shortcomings as an artist, and so they chose to present him in the form of Babaji.

"If we were going to conduct a trial on this," di Capua says, "I believe it's standard procedure to consider the credibility of the witness, and if we're going to call the illustrations into the witness box, in my opinion, they have no credibility. They're slovenly, they're poorly executed. If I'm in the jury box, I would disregard their testimony."

But before getting too literal, Lester suggests, "Remember, this is a story in which tigers talk."

*

Lester and Pinkney work from the conclusions of Elizabeth Hay, who wrote "Sambo Sahib," a biography of Bannerman published in 1981. Included in her research were interviews with Bannerman's children, for whom the story was written with no intent of publication.

Hay concluded that Bannerman's failings were not in art but in geography. "She chose to set her book in a land of which she knew little. She had never visited Africa, and probably never knew any Africans. Her books were set in a vaguely African world of her imagination; it is not surprising if the detail is mixed."

In reference to her use of the word "ghi," Hay explained, "This again stems from the audience for whom they were written. Her daughters understood Hindustani words like 'ghi,' the English equivalent, 'clarified butter,' would have been a mystery to them."

Lester and Pinkney previously teamed to retell the Uncle Remus tales and the story of John Henry. So it is no surprise that they should arrive at "Little Black Sambo."

"My role was to revisit the story, reclaim it and then redeem it," Pinkney says. "In thinking whether I wanted to do it, oftentimes the symbol of Sambo would come up in terms of reference to a book that was truly stereotypical for children, and you would still hear the derogative and demeaning term, Sambo. So that's still around; it never went away."

HarperCollins, which publishes the only authorized American version of "Little Black Sambo," has sold about 20,000 copies a year over the past 10 years.

"That, too, means it never went away," Pinkney says. "For us to feel that because we didn't speak of it, it was gone, was not true. So that gave me a sense that it was truly the right thing to do."

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