Question of the Month:

Bing's Little Black Sambo

February 2004

(Editor's Note: Each week the Jim Crow Museum receives numerous emails about contemporary issues. Many of these comments reflect great insight and passion. We offered to one of the email writers, E.J. McPherson, the opportunity to address the newly released "Little Black Sambo" book, with illustrations from Christopher Bing. Members of the Jim Crow Museum staff have read the Bing version and have critiqued it in the national media. Although E.J. McPherson refuses to read the book, we believe he offers a thoughtful response to the book's introduction into the marketplace).

Q:  Is the version of "The Little Black Sambo" book illustrated by Christopher Bing racist or racially insensitive? He has drawn Sambo in a non-caricatured way and he does not employ racist dialogue. So, what is wrong with the book?

-- Tony Dixon, Chicago

A:  Let me state at the outset, that I see no reason to read either Mr. Bing's re-illustrated version or Helen Bannerman's book, Little Black Sambo, (LBS).

Chris Bing states that the memory of his grandfather is the motivation and inspiration to re-illustrate Helen Bannerman's controversial story. Although he realized the need for corrective drawings, in this effort, Mr. Bing's effort subordinates the sensitivity and historical painfulness of several generations of African-Americans to the desire to honor his childhood memories of his grandfather. I do not impinge Mr. Bing's stated motives or his acclaimed drawings. However, I cannot accept it as sufficient persuasion.

The question is not "What is wrong with Mr. Bing's book, but rather we should ask ourselves "Why read it at all?" What positive redeeming social message for children does the book contain? What insightful or imaginative experience does it present for any child, of any color or ethnic background?

Because she did not write LBS with publication in mind, Ms. Bannerman's original work may simply reflect the prevailing racial attitudes and prejudice of her 1899 social class, as the wife of a British Army surgeon living in India.

One should also note that Helen Bannerman published "Little Black Quibba, Little Black Quasha, and Little Black Mingo" as sequels to LBS. The latter book provides a similarly designed racial stereotype for an Asian female.

I am not prepared to overlook this historical context and accept that third parties in American abused Ms. Bannerman's body of work to create a racist litany, which she did not intend. Her choice of names, "Sambo, Mumbo and Jumbo" indicates her clear use of insensitive stereotypes. Ms. Bannerman's illustrations emphasize the dark-skinned Indian and are clearly caricatures with exaggerated African facial and hair features. Perhaps the prejudice within her body of work is a subliminal reflection of 1899 British worldview of people of color.

Ms. Bannerman's LBS is credited as an innovation in picture-book illustration, for its bold, simple and colorful expression. Apparently, this innovation overshadows the reproach of her stereotypical caricatures and shallow social message. Maybe, this innovation genuinely attracts Mr. Bing's talent.

Nonetheless, its not enough to simply improve the illustrations and multicultural context of this story, and think that its re-telling will not still offend, yet unhealed wounds. We should not accept seemingly innocuous new treatments of racist icons and symbols as progressive art. We cannot ignore their historical context as painful and offensive vestiges of America's undemocratic and inhumane racial legacy. This applies to all the nation's historically oppressed groups of ethnic newcomers, as well as the nation's first people. One-dimensional redress is inadequate, artistic pandering.

Poetic license has its limit in the ongoing struggle for social justice. Too many victims of America's racist underbelly remain unconsecrated and forgotten to permit uncritical embrace of Mr. Bing's work, as just an inspired tribute to the childhood memory of his grandfather.

What is needed are more positive images of people of color combined with stories and messages designed to empower children of all backgrounds without the subliminal prejudice of blatantly outdated stereotypes.

With his work on Mary Shelley's "The Essential Frankenstein," and Bram Stoker's "Dracula," it seems that Chris Bing sometimes earns his living by illustrating monsters of past generations. This time he has gone too far for my aesthetics. I recommend PBS video (volume 379) "Murder of Emmett Till" to Mr. Bing as inspiration for his next diversity project.

American's unresolved racial struggle and un-reconciled history of bigotry is ripe with opportunities for the talent of a new generation of storytellers.

February 2004 Response by:
E.J. McPherson (ejmcpherson@cox.net)



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