The Story of Little Black Sambo

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The Story of Little Black Sambo
1st edition cover, 1899
AuthorHelen Bannerman
IllustratorHelen Bannerman
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreChildren's literature
PublisherGrant Richards, London
Publication date
Media typePrint

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a children's book written and illustrated by Scottish author Helen Bannerman and published by Grant Richards in October 1899. As one in a series of small-format books called The Dumpy Books for Children, the story was popular for more than half a century.

Contemporary critics observed that Bannerman presented one of the first black heroes in children's literature and regarded the book as positively portraying black characters in both the text and pictures, especially in comparison to books of that era that depicted black people as simple and uncivilised.[1] However, it became an object of allegations of racism in the mid-20th century due to the names of the characters being racial slurs for dark-skinned people, and the fact that the illustrations were, as Langston Hughes expressed it, in the pickaninny style.[2] In more recent editions, both text and illustrations have undergone considerable revision.


Sambo is a South Indian boy who lives with his father and mother, named Black Jumbo and Black Mumbo respectively. While out walking, Sambo encounters four hungry tigers, and he surrenders his colourful new clothes, shoes and umbrella so that they will not eat him. The tigers are vain and each thinks that it is better dressed than the others. They have a massive argument and chase each other around a tree until they are reduced to a pool of ghee (clarified butter). Sambo recovers his clothes and goes home, and his father later collects the ghee, which his mother uses to make pancakes.[3]


The book's original illustrations were created by the author and were simple in style, and depicted Sambo as a Southern Indian or Tamil child. Little Black Sambo's success led to many counterfeit, inexpensive, easily available versions that incorporated popular stereotypes of "black" peoples. One example was a 1908 edition illustrated by John R. Neill, best known for his illustration of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum.[4] 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.[5]

Cover of 1900 first U.S. edition published by Frederick A. Stokes

In 1942, Saalfield Publishing Company released a version of Little Black Sambo illustrated by Ethel Hays.[6] In 1943, Julian Wehr created an animated version.[7] During the mid-20th century, some American editions of the story, including a 1950 audio version on Peter Pan Records, changed the title to the racially neutral Little Brave Sambo.

The book is beloved in Japan and is not widely considered controversial there. 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 U.S. edition published by Macmillan Publishers in 1927. Sambo was illustrated as an African boy rather than 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 removed from shelves in 1988, when The Association to Stop Racism Against Blacks launched a complaint against all major publishers in Japan that published variations of the story, which, in turn, triggered self-censorship among those publishers.[8][9] In 2005, after copyright of the 1953 Iwanami Shoten Publishing edition of the book expired, Zuiunsya reprinted the original version and sold more than 150,000 copies within five months' time, and Kodansha and Shogakukan, the two largest publishers in Japan, published official editions. These are still in print, and as of August 2011, an equally controversial "side story" for Little Black Sambo, called Ufu and Mufu, is being sold and merchandised in Japan. The reprinting caused criticism from media outside Japan, such as the Los Angeles Times.[9]

Modern versions[edit]

In 1959, Whitman Publishing Company released an edition illustrated by Violet LaMont. Her colorful pictures show an Indian family wearing bright Indian clothes. The story of the boy and the tigers is as described in the plot section above.

A page from the 1959 edition of Little Black Sambo

In 1996, illustrator Fred Marcellino observed that the story itself contained no racist overtones and produced a re-illustrated version, The Story of Little Babaji, which changed the characters' names but otherwise left the text unmodified.[10]

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".[11]

A 2003 printing with the original title substituted more racially sensitive illustrations by Christopher Bing, portraying Sambo, in his publisher's words, as "a glorious and unabashedly African child".[12] It was chosen for the Kirkus 2003 Editor's Choice list. Some critics remained unsatisfied. 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.'"[13]

In 1997, Kitaooji Shobo Publishing in Kyoto obtained formal license from the UK publisher, and republished the work under the title of Chibikuro Sampo (In Japanese, "Chibi" means "little,""kuro" means black, and "Sampo" means a stroll, a kind of pun for the original word "Sambo"). The protagonist is depicted as a black Labrador puppy that goes for a stroll in the jungle; no humans appear in the edition. The Association To Stop Racism Against Blacks still refers to the book in this edition as discriminatory.[citation needed]

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

In 2004, a Little Golden Books edition was published under the title The Boy and the Tigers, with new names and illustrations by Valeria Petrone. The boy is called Little Rajani.[14]

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

The story was retold as "Little Kim" in a storybook and cassette as part of the Once Upon a Time Fairy Tale Series where Sambo is called "Kim", his father Jumbo is "Tim" and his mother Mumbo is "Sim".[citation needed]


Little Black Sambo board game (box lid)

A board game was produced in 1924, and re-issued in 1945, with different artwork. Essentially, the game followed the storyline, starting and ending at home.[citation needed]

In the 1930s, Wyandotte Toys used a pickaninny caricature "Sambo" image for a dart-gun target.[15]

An animated version of the story was produced in 1935 as part of Ub Iwerks's ComiColor series.

In 1939, Little Nipper (RCA Records for children) issued, in addition to a record storybook set of the traditional story,[16] a two 45-RPM record storybook set entitled "Little Black Sambo's Jungle Band", narrated by Paul Wing.[16][17] In the story, Little Black Sambo (in India) goes for a walk in the jungle and encounters a variety of animals, each, in the style of Peter and the Wolf (which had been composed by Sergei Prokofiev three years before), with its own distinctive instrument (e.g., an elephant with a tuba, a "big baboon with a big bassoon", a honey bear with a "perfectly peach piccolo", and a long green snake "playing its scales"). Each animal plays a distinctive song for him, and then they elect him to be their band director. By trial and error, Sambo trains the animals to play and harmonize together. In short, he is the talented hero of the story.

Columbia Records issued a 1946 version on two 78 RPM records with narration by Don Lyon.[18] It was issued in a folder with artwork showing Sambo to be quite black indeed, though the narrative preserves the locale as India.[19]

In 1961, HMV Junior Record Club issued a dramatised version – words by David Croft, music by Cyril Ornadel – with Susan Hampshire in the title role and narrated by Ray Ellington.[20]

Referenced or parodied in[edit]

The visual novel Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (as well as its anime adaptation) references The Story of Little Black Sambo in the second chapter of the story. When Mondo Owada is found guilty of murdering a fellow student, the headmaster of the academy executes him in the "Motorcycle Death Cage". Owada is tied to the back of a motorcycle and sent to spin in circles in a large steel cage; spinning at this fast rate while the cage becomes charged with electricity causes Mondo to be electrocuted to a point of liquefying into a butter-like substance that is packaged as "Mondo Butter". "Little Black Sambo" (痴美苦露惨母) is seen written in kanji on the back of the motorcycle at the beginning of the execution, and the tiger design on the motorcycle and the two bobbing tiger panels on the sides of the death cage are a clear reference to this story.

The novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury references Little Black Sambo in Part One: The Hearth and the Salamander as Captain Beatty discusses literature with Guy Montag: "Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it."

"Begin the Begin", the opening song on R.E.M.'s 1986 album Lifes Rich Pageant, references the story with the lyrics "tiger run around the tree, follow the leader, run and turn into butter."


Lil' Sambo's was a restaurant founded in 1957 in Lincoln City, Oregon named after the fictional character.[21] It operated for 65 years as a popular spot in the community with many novelty merchandise items for sale. It closed in 2022 with the aging of the owners.[22]

Sambo's was a popular U.S. restaurant chain of the 1950s through 1970s that borrowed characters from the book (including Sambo and the tigers) for promotional purposes, although the Sambo name was originally a blend of the founders' names and nicknames: Sam (Sam Battistone) and Bo (Newell Bohnett).[23] For a period in the late 1970s, some locations were renamed "The Jolly Tiger". The controversy about the book led to accusations of racism that contributed to its demise in the early 1980s.[23] Images inspired by the book (now considered by some to be racially insensitive) were common interior decorations in the restaurants.[24] Though portions of the original chain were renamed "No Place Like Sam's" to try to forestall closure,[25] all but the original restaurants in Santa Barbara, California had closed by 1983. The original location, owned by Battistone's grandson Chad Stevens, existed in Santa Barbara under the name "Sambo's" until June 2020.[26] The name on the restaurant's sign was temporarily changed to the motto " & LOVE" due to pressure from the Black Lives Matter group during the George Floyd protests and a separate signature drive that collected thousands of signatures.[27] In July 2020, the restaurant was officially renamed "Chad's".[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Helen Bannerman on the Train to Kodaikanal". Archived from the original on 15 May 2007. Retrieved 11 April 2007.
  2. ^ Jeyathurai, Dashini (4 April 2012). "The complicated racial politics of Little Black Sambo". South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA). Retrieved 4 August 2018.
  3. ^ Bannerman, Helen. "The Story of Little Black Sambo". Archived from the original on 16 March 2016.
  4. ^ Bernstein, Robin (2011). Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press. pp. 66–67. ISBN 9780814787090. Retrieved 4 January 2012.
  5. ^ David Pilgrim, "The Picaninny Caricature", Archived 1 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
  6. ^ "Mimi Kaplan collection, 1900 – 1920 – Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign".
  7. ^ Bannerman, Helen; Wehr, Julian (1943). Little Black Sambo. Duenewald Printing Corporation. OCLC 61141694.
  8. ^ Kazuo Mori (2005). "A Comparison of Amusingness for Japanese Children and Senior Citizens of The Story of Little Black Sambo" (PDF). Social Behavior and Personality. 33 (5). Society for Personality Research: 455–466. doi:10.2224/sbp.2005.33.5.455. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 November 2013.
  9. ^ a b 加藤, 夏希 (January 2010). "差別語規制とメディア ちびくろサンボ問題を中心に" (PDF). リテラシー史研究 (in Japanese) (3). Waseda University: 41–54. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 January 2017. Retrieved 1 January 2017.
  10. ^ Golus, Carrie (September–October 2010). "Sambo's subtext". The University of Chicago Magazine.
  11. ^ "Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo". Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Media LLC. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  12. ^ "Bookreview: New life for a troubled favorite". 22 December 2006. Retrieved 3 February 2021.
  13. ^ Kennedy, Louise (14 December 2003). "New Storybook Reopens Old Wounds". The Boston Globe.
  14. ^ Random House, Inc., New York, 2004. ISBN 978-0-375-82719-8.
  15. ^ "Tin Toys #1".
  16. ^ a b "RCA Victor Little Nippers: A Paul Wing Trio of Story-book Albums". The Billboard. 14 October 1950. p. 21. Retrieved 15 February 2019.
  17. ^ Little Black Sambo's jungle band. OCLC. OCLC 654148490.
  18. ^ "Little Black Sambo, by Don Lyon (1946)".
  19. ^ "Don Lyon – Little Black Sambo". Discogs. 23 November 1946.
  20. ^ "Various Artists – Black Sambo, Black Sambo".
  21. ^ "Lil Sambos Restaurant in Lincoln city". Retrieved 12 January 2020.
  22. ^ Ruark, Jeremy C. (22 November 2022). "Most Viewed - Photos / Closing: Lincoln City icon shuts down, leaving memories behind". The News Guard. Archived from the original on 7 December 2022. Retrieved 23 February 2023.
  23. ^ a b "Massachusetts asks ban on 'Sambo's' name". The Miami News. 27 September 1978. p. 4a. Prosecutors say unless the name is banned, 'Racial tensions will increase.'
  24. ^ "Sambo's restaurants file for voluntary bankruptcy". Deseret News. 27 November 1981. p. 6e.
  25. ^ "Sambo's to Alter Northeast Names". The New York Times. 11 March 1981.
  26. ^ "On This Date in Santa Barbara: Sambo's Opens". 17 June 2014. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  27. ^ Delaney Smith (5 June 2020). "Amid Protests, 'Peace & Love' Is New Motto for Last Standing Sambo's Restaurant". Santa Barbara Independent. Retrieved 31 May 2021.
  28. ^ Palminteri, John (15 July 2020). "It's official – Chad's replaces Sambo's after 63 years in Santa Barbara". KEYT-TV. Retrieved 1 September 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barbara Bader (1996). "Sambo, Babaji, and Sam", The Horn Book Magazine. September–October 1996, vol. 72, no. 5, p. 536.
  • Phyllis Settecase Barton (1999). 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, Calif.
  • Dashini Jeyathuray (2012). "The complicated racial politics of Little Black Sambo" via South Asian American Digital Archive. 5 April 2012:
  • Kazuo Mori (2005). "A Comparison of Amusingness for Japanese Children and Senior Citizens of The Story of Little Black Sambo in the Traditional Version and Nonracist Version." Social Behavior and Personality, Vol. 33, pp. 455–466.

External links[edit]