The Story of Little Black Sambo

The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman (First published in 1899 by Grant Richards)

International Slavery Museum, Liverpool   #booksandmuseums series

A controversial book on the blog today.

The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman is part of the museum’s collection which explores the representation of Black people through racial stereotypes. The International Slavery Museum endeavours to collect objects that represent forms of racism and discrimination such as these, as well as items relating to transatlantic slavery, Black history and contemporary forms of slavery.

The American edition of the book is currently on display. Two other books by Helen Bannerman – the British edition of The Story of Little Black Sambo and The Story of Sambo and the Twins have also been donated to the International Slavery Museum’s collections, but are not currently on display.

Several items like this have all been donated to the museum by people who had owned them for a long time, possibly from childhood. The growing realisation that once familiar and ‘acceptable’ objects are based on negative racial stereotypes has left owners unsure of what to do with them.

David Fleming, Director of the National Museums Liverpool: ‘Museums have frequently managed to obscure such massive issues by failing to grasp that controversy is not alien to the museum world: in fact, controversy and debate are central to our work.’

Several copies of The Story of Little Black Sambo have been donated to the museum and are part of the collection which explores the representation of Black people through racial stereotypes. The International Slavery Museum endeavours to collect objects that represent forms of racism and discrimination such as these, as well as items relating to transatlantic slavery, Black history and contemporary forms of slavery.

Other objects in this part of the collection include a golly doll, a Robertson’s Jam apron and a Darkie toothpaste box. They have all been donated to the museum by people who had owned them for a long time, possibly from childhood. The growing realisation that once familiar and ‘acceptable’ objects are based on negative racial stereotypes has left owners unsure of what to do with them.

 

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Watch David Fleming in conversation with Jasper Visser at Museum Next in Dublin 18-20 April 2016. Listen to the talk in full here.
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The Story of Little Black Sambo was first published as one in a series of small-format books called ‘The Dumpy Books for Children’. The story was a children’s favourite for more than half a century until it became associated with racism.

Critics of the time observed that Bannerman presents one of the first black heroes in children’s literature and regarded as a book that positively portrayed black characters in both the text and pictures, especially in comparison to the more negative books of that era that depicted blacks as simple and uncivilised. Both text and illustrations have undergone considerable revision since.

Other controversy around The Story of Little Black Sambo:

The book is beloved in Japan and is not considered controversial there, but it was subject to copyright infringement. The Story of Little Black Sambo (ちびくろサンボChibikuro Sanbo) was first published in Japan by Iwanami Shoten Publishing in 1953. The book was an unlicensed 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, this 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 copyright issues were raised. When the copyright expired, Kodansha and Shogakukan, the two largest publishers in Japan, published official editions. These are still in print.

 

 

 

 

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