A wild goose chase: Seeking Little Black Sambo

Two weeks ago I ran across a news story about a Black History Month exhibit that included a copy of The Story of Little Black Sambo, published in 1899.

To refresh my memory of the story, I went to Project Gutenberg, where I found a copy of Little Black Sambo written by Helen Bannerman and illustrated by Florence White Williams.

I remember as a child hearing the expression “the grandest tiger in the jungle,” but nothing else in the story seemed familiar.

It’s clear from the text that the story is set in India, so how did the Southern Black stereotyped figures get into the book?

I found out that the author of the story, Helen Bannerman, was from Edinburgh, Scotland. She married a man who was a physician and officer in the Indian Medical Service. They moved to India, where they lived for 30 years. They raised four children in what is now known as Channai.

Little Black Sambo was first published by Grant Richards in 1899 in London. Bannerman is listed as both author and illustrator of that edition. I can’t think of any reason for Bannerman to use American racial stereotypes in the British empire, but I cannot find any images from that edition to show that she didn’t. There are references to Bannerman’s “cartoonish” style being the reason for publishers not using her art in later editions. 

In 1900, an edition of Little Black Sambo was printed in the US by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. It may have looked like this. White Williams was too young to have done the illustrations for that.

(White Williams’ birth year is variously listed as 1888, 1895, 1900 and both 1888 and 1900.  She would have been roughly the same age as the Bannerman children.)

I’ve found references to White Williams doing Sambo art for 1918 and 1919 editions of the book, but no images.

There were many knock-off copies of Sambo published up through 1923 when Stokes labeled that year’s product “The Only Authorized American Edition.” That was just about the time Florence White Williams was making a name for herself as an illustrator and artist, but I can’t find any source that says who did the illustrations for the “authorized edition.”

I’ve spent a whole day trying to figure out how Little Black Sambo was transformed from the story of a clever Indian boy to a story about race in the American south, and I’m no closer to knowing than when I began.

I guess this is what’s called lifelong learning.

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