No more 'Little Black Sambo'

September 21, 1996|By Harold Jackson

A WHITE FRIEND surprised me during a conversation at lunch a few years back when he casually commented that he had never thought of any African-American woman as attractive. I didn't respond because the remark struck me as ridiculous, if not dishonest.

The women we call black come in enough shades, shapes and situations to provide at least one who is pleasing to the eye of any man who still has red blood pumping through his veins. Unless he is a racist. Was my ''friend'' trying to tell me something?

The more I thought about it the more I realized how much of our childhood conditioning about beauty and ugliness remains with us after we become adults.

Little black boys who grow up reading fairy-tale books with pictures of alluring blonde and pale-flesh girls named Cinderella and Snow White have no problem as men accepting that type of woman as beautiful. Indeed, some prefer them. Others look at the full spectrum of possibilities, and many only have eyes for the brown-skin and darker visions of loveliness they might be more familiar with outside the pages of a book.

A deprived childhood

I decided my friend had been deprived. His lily-white childhood had provided only one concept of beauty -- a girl who looks like Cinderella. I almost felt sorry for him. No wonder he has yet to marry.

Thinking of my friend now I am reminded of how impressionable we are as children, retaining in our minds ideas about pretty and ugly, good and bad, worthy and unworthy that can unconsciously direct our actions as adults.

That's why it's important to take note of the work of author Julius Lester and illustrator Jerry Pinkney, who have rewritten the classic children's fairy tale, ''The Story of Little Black Sambo,'' bTC and renamed it ''Sam and the Tigers.''

Fell into disrepute

If you're young enough, you may not have heard of ''Little Black Sambo.'' The children's book, originally written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman in 1899, fell into disrepute during those heady days of black consciousness -- the 1960s and '70s.

But I'm not that young. I remember reading the little book in the primary grades of elementary school. I remember children, African-American children, making fun of the central character's jet skin and big ruby lips.

I remember the uneasiness of darker classmates who, in any verbal sparring preceding a physical fray, knew they were likely to be dismissed as ''Sambo.''

I don't remember wondering what white children who read ''Little Black Sambo'' thought. But I think about it now. For some, the book's depictions of Sambo's parents as ''Black Mumbo'' and ''Black Jumbo'' probably added to the stereotypes that later affected their vision of all black people.

Actually, I always liked the ''Sambo'' story. It's about an African child who encounters tigers while strutting around in a new suit ++ of clothes. He tricks the tigers into fighting each other and they go chasing around a tree at such swift speed that they turn into butter, which the boy takes home to eat on his mother's pancakes.

It's a good story, the kind that stays with a child long after he's read it, especially the pictures. Mr. Lester and Mr. Pinkney understood that. They want to leave positive images in the minds of children who read ''Sam and the Tigers.'' That should also be the case with another new version of the ''Sambo'' tale that is set in India as ''The Story of Little Babaji.''

Children's books today present a greater diversity of characters than when I was a child. There are not only heroes who resemble people of African ancestry, there are depictions of feminine beauty who have dark skin. But not enough. Cinderella is still a blonde.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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