My Reading Life: Little Black Sambo

My earliest memories involve books. I remember both of my parents reading to me, Mom reading kids’ books to me, Dad reading…..well, whatever he was reading when I climbed on his lap, I think. Probably everyone my age knows the books Captain Kangaroo read on his show–Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel jumps out at me, and I have gauzy visions of Mom reading that to me, too. Reading was part of the warp and weft of my childhood.

But there’s one story that I probably shouldn’t talk about Mom reading me, a story that is reviled in children’s lit; in a college children’s lit class I took, the prof actually lowered her voice as she mentioned the volume, and admitted she had never seen it. Little Black Sambo was the story of a child who tricked some tigers into chasing each other around a tree until the tigers all melted into butter, with illustrations that were later considered overwrought and racially demeaning.  Poet Langston Hughes called the book “a typical ‘pickaninny’ storybook which was hurtful to black children,” and slowly,  publishers and the public, in a growing awareness of racism, quit buying and reading the story.There’s more to that part of Sambo’s saga, but that’s not what makes this part of my reading life.

A couple years ago, in one of my Senior English classes, I was trying to explain “trickster” figures. Along with Bugs Bunny, I mentioned Sambo–totally forgetting that my students have been raised in a politically correct, racially sensitive era. The class was almost entirely African-American, like many of my classes are, and I had to make a split-second decision when I saw they didn’t understand the allusion: shrug it off and go on, or stop, explain and discuss. Which option was more likely to result in phone calls? Which stood a better chance of getting my name in the paper…..in a context I really wanted to avoid? Stopping to talk about Little Black Sambo sounded like a bad idea, but…of course that’s exactly what I did.

There’s a part I didn’t anticipate when I tried to briefly (and politically correctly) describe Sambo’s story: cell phones. Students who couldn’t do research for their senior research papers unless I stood behind their shoulder all the sudden had their cell phones in their hands, the version of the book from my childhood on the tiny screens. In a matter of seconds, three students had found the book, and another couple were scanning the wikipedia entry about the book.As “racial” material, the virtual book couldn’t get past the school internet filters, but like good rebels, we had access anyway.

We had a two day conversation about what racism is and how attitudes have changed over the years. Many of the kids were baffled by why the book was considered racist; they even pointed out that Sambo is Indian, according to the story, not African, yet curiously, the pictures were reminiscent of an Aunt Jemima bottle. Questions about censorship, especially commercial v. governmental, were raised, too. My lesson plan was shot for those days–but the degree of research, engagement, and deep discussion that came out of it was incredible. And, because I had to wrap it up and carry on, there was a writing prompt giving the kids a chance to assimilate and process our discussion.

In the process of discussing with my students, I learned something else. Well, I knew it, but it was vividly reinforced. Few of my students were read to as children. For many, the first memory of someone reading to them was HeadStart. There were exceptions, of course, but fewer than I hoped. I can’t imagine not having Sambo and Mike Mulligan and all the animals from Over in the Meadow, and the Little Lost Dolly and Laughing Allegra, and Make Way for Ducklings, and….all of them, bouncing around in the dark recesses of my mind. My reading life started before I could read. Woven through my life are the stories and people that I’ve only encountered on the page (since I got my Kindle, on the screen, too). Maybe it’s not a wonder that my students so often label things “boring;” their imaginations aren’t peopled with ideas and places outside of their experience, anxious to be brought to life as only an imaginative reader can.

Talking about what I’ve read is a cornerstone of most of my relationships. My older kids are more likely to call me if they have read a good book than if they have the flu. The students who I’ve stayed close to after graduation are all readers, and frequently email or text to share something they’ve read. I’ve discovered–or rediscovered–great writers because of they assume I want to know what they’re reading.

So my students, who don’t read for fun, who very often come from homes where reading is “work” or “boring,” where no one ever read to them for fun–or argued that that book is always better than the movie– they miss a world of interaction and connection not just with ideas, but with other people.

Little Black Sambo reminded me of all that.

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