The Story of Little Black Sambo

The Story of Little Black Sambo

June 29, 2018

Because there are so many tigers on the old plantations.

This book is only bad because of Helen Bannerman's original racist drawings and the names of the characters. The characters don't act in a particularly stereotypical way, and the message of the book isn't inherently bad. Clearly the story is set in India, and I don't know why Bannerman decided to draw the characters as awful stereotypes from the American South. There are no tigers in the Southern United States, and ghi (or ghee) is even stated to be from India. But the first sentence is, "Once upon a time there was a little black boy, and his name was Little Black Sambo." There's really nothing inherently wrong with that, except that his race is irrelevant to the story. Pointing out his race, and having his race be a part of his name, is just tacky. The name "Sambo" had already been in use for some time as a stereotypical "black" name, but it's hard to tell how derogatory the name was until after Bannerman's book became popular. The preface to the edition of the book I read says, "Sambo became, to some, a symbol of racism, and to others, he remained a long-remembered favorite."

The story: A little boy's mother makes him a jacket and some pants, and his dad buys him an umbrella and some pretty shoes. Then he goes out for a walk in the jungle and meets a tiger. The tiger says, "I'm gonna eat you," and the kid says, "Don't eat me! I'll give you my jacket." And so the tiger goes, "Okay." And then the boy meets another tiger who threatens him into giving the tiger his pants. Another tiger gets his shoes, although he protests, "What am I gonna do with two shoes? I've got four feet." And the kid says, "Put them on your ears," and the tiger's like, "What a great idea!" A fourth tiger takes the umbrella, after protesting that he can't hold it, and the kid tells him to tie a knot in his tail to hold it. At this point, the boy is sad, because he doesn't have any of his fancy clothes anymore (he doesn't seem to care that he's in his underwear). He hears the tigers coming, so he hides behind a tree. The tigers are fighting over which one of them is the prettiest, and they get so angry at each other that they take off all the fancy clothes and start fighting. They head towards the tree the boy was behind (he runs to hide behind the umbrella) and they get in a circle around it, each grabbing the tail of the tiger in front of him with his teeth. The boy goes, "Don't you want the clothes anymore? Let me know if you want them, otherwise I'm gonna take them." The tigers don't say anything because they don't want to let go of each other's tails, so the kid gets the clothes and wanders off. The tigers get so mad that they run around the tree faster and faster, until they turn into melted butter. Then the kid's father saunters by, sees the butter, and goes, "That looks like some great butter lying on the ground. I'm gonna take that home to my wife." The kids mom goes, "Hey, this is good, we'll all have pancakes for dinner." And the mother eats 27, the father eats 55, and the boy eats 169. The end.

That story, in and of itself, even with an African-American protagonist (in a jungle for some reason), has nothing inherently wrong with it. The child is the hero. There's nothing demeaning about his textual portrayal. I'm not sure if I'd describe what he does to the tigers as "outwitting" (they basically fall victim to their own pride without much intervention from him) unless you count him trading his clothes for his life. But like I said, without the illustrations and character names, there's nothing wrong with the story. And in fact, there are many retellings of the story with different illustrations that are perfectly fine books. Obviously, you could make it more racist if you tried, but without the racist elements and it's a perfectly serviceable, if a bit mediocre, story. The edition with Bannerman's original illustrations, like many of the early editions of the book with similarly racist illustrations by other artists, is bad. This is very uncomfortable for me to read as a white person, and I can't imagine what it must be like for a black person, especially a child, to see these caricatures. And it's not like they're great art, either. I could draw better than this. Even the tigers are weird, looking like some kind of cross between a tiger and a Chinese dragon. Very strange-looking.

I feel like the story wants to get across some message, but I'm not sure what it is. "Tigers will eat you unless you give them pretty clothes"? "Tigers are surprisingly fashion-conscious"? "Stay out of the way of anybody who's having a fight"? That one's not too bad. Maybe just "Pancakes are delicious."


Black people have certain exaggerated features.

Publication Year
Age Range
Number of Pages
Number of words on a typical page
Submitted by Valerie (not verified) Fri, 06/28/2019 - 08:24

Message interpretation had me laughing out loud.

Submitted by Bradford Rober… (not verified) Tue, 09/01/2020 - 10:09

In reply to by Valerie (not verified)

I agree that the racial part of this story is not essential and it would be very good if it wan't there. But I see nothing mediocre about the tigers part of the story: People who try to Keep up with the Jonses just lose their identities. There's nothing mediocre about that except for the mediocrity of the people. The story is admonitory: Be an individual or else you will lose your self.

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Tue, 09/01/2020 - 10:36

In reply to by Bradford Rober… (not verified)

That's an interesting message; it wouldn't have occurred to me. I think the tigers are usually considered to be vain instead of conformist or ambitious, but I can see where your idea comes from.

Submitted by Jon dewit (not verified) Fri, 03/05/2021 - 16:00

In reply to by Bradford Rober… (not verified)

Love this book . Speaks volumes of reality

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Fri, 03/05/2021 - 16:02

In reply to by Jon dewit (not verified)

Sorry, I'm not sure how tigers wearing clothes, speaking english, becoming jealous of each other, and melting into butter is realistic. Or eating over a hundred pancakes in a sitting.

Submitted by R Kress (not verified) Mon, 03/08/2021 - 07:27

In reply to by Cassandra Gelvin

Perhaps the reality being referred to is more metaphorical rather than literal? While we should all value tigers as fellow co-inhabitants of the spaceship earth, it is hard to imagine a world where more butter in not a good thing.

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Mon, 03/08/2021 - 11:23

In reply to by R Kress (not verified)

Thanks for the laugh!

Submitted by Jennie Stoltz (not verified) Thu, 07/18/2019 - 19:59

There are a few modern retellings (with new illustrations) of Little Black Sambo that are wonderful. One is called "The Story of Little Babaji" by Helen Bannerman and Fred Marcellino and another is "Sam and the Tigers: A Retelling of 'Little Black Sambo'" by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney. The story itself is good, it primarily has unfortunate illustrations.

Submitted by Patricia Ann Neely (not verified) Thu, 11/07/2019 - 18:59

I loved this story when I was a young child. I see nothing wrong with this story. I think some people just like to make a mountain out of a mole hill.

The story is about the bad guys stealing from someone by use of a threat. In the end, the bad guys destroy themselves because of their greed, and pig headedness.

Moral of the story is, don’t steal, because in the end you lose.

Submitted by Am (not verified) Tue, 03/02/2021 - 12:04

In reply to by kkh369 (not verified)

To the person who said, “I’m guessing you aren’t black”....I’m guessing you aren’t either. Another woke white person who finds fault in everything but their own lives

Submitted by Sharon Bauer (not verified) Thu, 01/21/2021 - 14:27

In reply to by Patricia Ann Neely (not verified)

Keep in mind that the age that we read this book is between five and 10. I read that book back in the 60s no less than 25 times and today is the first day I have thought about it since then. My memories are of these tigers being very mean to a little boy and he won because they ran around a tree and turned into butter because mean is bad and that’s what I got out of the story. Not one bit of race is thought of when you are young and learning the joy of reading. Let it go for what it is.

Submitted by Douglas Kane (not verified) Sat, 03/06/2021 - 18:33

In reply to by Sharon Bauer (not verified)

Hats off to Sharon Bauer. She has voiced the most honest and reality based response of all. Let it go. Let it be a tale written in the world of its time. It's a little piece of history and a very fun story for a child. Give your kids a chance for crying out loud.

Submitted by Paul Allan Standley (not verified) Fri, 03/05/2021 - 19:43

In reply to by Patricia Ann Neely (not verified)

I am Mauritian , my patent immigrated to Australia in 1966 . I am dark skinned.
The book (Little black Sambo ) was read by my teacher Mrs Rose to my class grade 3 level . From that day on my childhood was ruined , I was called black Sambo and ridiculed every day until I graduated and began High School . I am still triggered by it and as a 58 year old man cannot understand why a teacher would read such a book to a class at a school with only (one black child) .

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Fri, 03/05/2021 - 19:53

In reply to by Paul Allan Standley (not verified)

It would also be terrible in a school with no black children, because there would be nobody there for the white children to see as an example of what real black people are like. (Not saying that black people need to be examples to white people, just that people become more open-minded when they are exposed to more cultures, as through travel to other countries.) Really, it's just not for kids at this point. It's only valuable as a historical relic of what we used to think was okay.

Submitted by Rebecca Houston (not verified) Sun, 03/14/2021 - 14:28

In reply to by Patricia Ann Neely (not verified)

Lovely book not racist .l fail to see why people make A story ,and that's what it is A story.something that's it not .

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Sun, 03/14/2021 - 14:49

In reply to by Rebecca Houston (not verified)

A story can be anything, even racist. Being "a story" doesn't magically exempt it from judgment.

Submitted by mike (not verified) Wed, 06/24/2020 - 08:25

took place in india. and he was african-american ? how’d he travel to america back then ? he was black. you can say it

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Wed, 06/24/2020 - 11:33

In reply to by mike (not verified)

As I said, to me, the characters come across as stereotypes from the American South. I suppose I used the term "African-American" to reflect what I saw, and to distinguish it from "black" as used in the book, where it could potentially refer to the skin color of a person of Indian descent (although nobody uses it that way today).

Submitted by Peter (not verified) Tue, 07/14/2020 - 21:24

Little Black Sambo was a Southern Indian character. Tamil I believe. Note the shoes. Most Tamils have a very dark, beautiful skin colour. As a small child, this book gave me an intrigue in the big wide world which at 65 years of age, has not been extinguished. Perhaps your children may interpret it similarly.

Submitted by kkh369 (not verified) Sun, 08/23/2020 - 16:35

In reply to by Peter (not verified)

Uh, no...Sambo is BLACK. He is African. I lived in India. Look at the mother. I never saw any Indian women dressed in the stereotypical "Black Mammy" garb. Pull your head out of your arse.

Submitted by Derek Gwilliam (not verified) Sat, 12/12/2020 - 23:23

In reply to by Peter (not verified)

When I was growing up in the sixties,these books were kept in my Grandmothers pantry with all of the nick nacks and toys belonging to my Father and his three brothers. I was always hungry to read books on any subject at the age of about three. Every Saturday was a visit to my Grandparents home. Inevitably I was nose deep in these entertaining little gems. At no point did any one comment on my reading material. Along with the Golliwog rag doll and enamel badges given away in a promotion by a conserve manufacturer, they were of their time. As other posts have iterated,my world was opened up to the possibility of travel,meeting people from a different culture and beliefs. At the age of Sixty two I’ve done achieved my objective ,due in part to these lovely little books. I don’t hate anyone and I mix with good friends who have different backgrounds. I respect the different opinions of others,even if I may not agree. Be kind to each other. Put yourself in other people’s shoes then walk a mile in them.

Submitted by Bea (not verified) Fri, 08/14/2020 - 09:57

When I was a small child I loved this book, the bad guy was the Tiger and the child was the good guy, I never thought of skin color, my friends from India are very dark skinned and I am WHITE.. it has nothing to do with racism, I loved it because the Tigers lost in the end and the pancakes tasted really good.. sorry people get offended over dumb things, I was raised to love everyone as the bible says!

Submitted by Gem (not verified) Mon, 08/17/2020 - 10:12

In reply to by Bea (not verified)

I also love this book as a child but in retrospect it is severely problematic.
It’s not getting offended over dumb things when the drawings are definitely racist caricatures. It’s lovely that you never thought of skin colour when you read it; the beauty of a child’s mind, but acknowledging that it does perpetuate harmful stereotypes doesn’t hurt anyone either. Unfortunately not everyone loves everyone like you do and we should all be doing what we can to hold our hands up that racism exists and stuff like this doesn’t help. Past actions viewed through the lens of present values doesn’t mean that something is ruined or that people are making a fuss, just that we need to see our past mistakes to be better.

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Mon, 08/17/2020 - 13:03

In reply to by Gem (not verified)

To be honest, whenever I get a notification that there's a new comment on my blog, I think, "Whose childhood have I ruined this time?" But every once in a while, it's someone basically coming to my defense, like this, and I really appreciate it. I'd much rather have the comments section be a conversation between multiple people than just me responding to each comment, though I do read them all. So, thanks! It's nice to see that I'm not alone!

Submitted by Robert Hardy (not verified) Wed, 03/31/2021 - 08:56

In reply to by Gem (not verified)

The book is very positive, even more so the sequals where the family are very resourceful in outwitting their enemies, in the he context of young English children reading and seeing the illustrations a century or more ago, they had a much loved character of different skin colour from them from earliest childhood. I think it is the current cultural attitude to them that is perhaps more problematic, Why did Michael Jackson feel driven to mutilate his born features out of existance? Perhaps the banning of generous lips, black skin and splendid hair from childhood illustrations, albeit naive in execution like Bannerman's is having the opposite effect from that claimed, and is more harmful than openly accepting them for what they are and we're intended to be?

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Wed, 03/31/2021 - 13:16

In reply to by Robert Hardy (not verified)

Nobody has "banned" incredibly stereotypical drawings. It's just that we realized they were incredibly stereotypical. If you look in a library or bookstore, you will find many books with illustrations of characters with "black skin", "splendid hair", and "generous lips". A great example is a book I reviewed in November, Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson's "The Undefeated", which has photorealistic illustrations of dozens of black people from history. Showing people as they truly look is great. Exaggerating what makes them different from "the norm" (aka "white people") is not.

Submitted by kkh369 (not verified) Sun, 08/23/2020 - 16:38

In reply to by Bea (not verified)

If course you're White. That's why you are defending this obvious rascism. The only "dumb thing" here is YOU.

Submitted by Maryann Devine (not verified) Fri, 01/01/2021 - 23:14

When I was young listening to Little Black Samba was mesmerizing. The story just fascinated me eyound bellied. Have no idea why? Didn’t have any visuals, but listened to it repeatedly. Have no idea why but it was truly fascinating.

Submitted by Dorothy Pryor (not verified) Sat, 01/16/2021 - 15:17

I loved this story when I was young. Never a racial thought. I am almost 90 years old. In fact, after I was first married, my husband and I named our first dog, Sam, after this story.
Oh, for the days! ! !

Submitted by dan (not verified) Sun, 02/07/2021 - 03:39

I remembered reading a story as a child in the 60s with tigers running around a tree and turning to butter, but couldn't remember what story it came from. I figured it might have been a reference to the 'n-word', since "tiger" was sometimes substituted (e.g. "catch a tiger by the toe"). I searched for it, and found this page. The story made an impression, fortunately the stereotypical images didn't stick - other than a vague association between tiger butter and Aunt Jemima pancake syrup, and now I know why. The stereotypes are gratuitous racism at best, or at worst there's a deeper intention. The story could easily be redrawn and retold to be mesmerising AND respectful, but as is, I would never give it to a child.

Submitted by markie (not verified) Sat, 02/20/2021 - 23:37

If the author was black, that would be ok for her to write this book? White can only write stories about whites, black can only write stories about blacks?
A black actress has just been cast to play an English queen Anne Boleyn, a real historical white person. Why is there no objection to this? It is just an acting, you said? So there should not be protest then when a Japanese plays Martin Luther King? Blackwashing in the name of racism nowadays is just unbelievable...

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Sun, 02/21/2021 - 01:10

In reply to by markie (not verified)

What even is this. If the author was black, this book would still be racist.

Submitted by Sugd (not verified) Sun, 02/21/2021 - 11:11

This story is problematic from jump. There's pictures, however, offensive, clearly showing the boy is Black. What is the reason for even mentioning he's Black? Its a way that whites have tried to keep in the forefront of everyone's mind, that Blacks & whites are different & therefore, in some weak minds, makes Blacks lesser than. Which is bs. Nobody is lesser or better than anyone else.

Submitted by Susan Licorish (not verified) Sun, 02/28/2021 - 08:05

I was 5 years old in Singapore. It was my first day in a new school at the RAF school .The school teacher told the children today we have a new child joining our class so we will have her read this new book today.The book was Little Black Sambo.I looked at it and looked at her she grinned at me .I am black .I knew this was mean but I didnt know why...I have never forgotten it ,I'm 59.

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Sun, 02/28/2021 - 12:28

In reply to by Susan Licorish (not verified)

This kind of thing is the reason I classified it as bad. Some people don't realize how hurtful bad books can be to children, or the bad ideas that they promote.

Submitted by Susan Marsh (not verified) Fri, 03/05/2021 - 05:25

In reply to by Susan Licorish (not verified)

Sorry you had a bad teacher and made you feel bad.
I had a bad teacher for my junior high sewing class. Back then in our first sewing class we had to make pleated skirts with waistbands and blouses with patterns & use interfacing. Too much expected of novices. And a dreadful teacher that did not want to teach/help. Ruined my love for sewing anything but hems for 35 years.
Regardless of color which I was too young to understand that there was supposedly a difference in our country and in the world, it was my fave book: It had Sambo, tigers, action and as an end result; butter for pancakes. BTW, I even loved Aunt Jemima. Even to this day I see nothing racist about either. Only love... I have black dolls...
It’s sad there are those that want to tear us apart with racism instead of bringing us together. This is across the board with all nationalities... There are racists in all nationalities... We ALL need to come together as lovers of peace not differences...

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Fri, 03/05/2021 - 11:14

In reply to by Susan Marsh (not verified)

There is an actual, measurable, difference in the way people are treated. Only those of us in the majority have the advantage of being blind to racism.

Submitted by OLDPATRIOT (not verified) Tue, 03/02/2021 - 12:53

What a shame this classic is being denied to young people. It is truly a delightful story..
Today's woke culture reflects ignorance and lack of intellectual thought

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Tue, 03/02/2021 - 13:01

In reply to by OLDPATRIOT (not verified)

What about it is "classic" and "delightful" other than its age?

Submitted by Susan Marsh (not verified) Fri, 03/05/2021 - 05:01

This was my fave story as a youngster. Like any fairy tale, it had humans, animals, great storyline with action and beautiful clothes. The best thing: Butter for pancakes...

I was too young to know about racism. Never associated this with racism. This was a delightful children’s story. It still is...

America is a “melting pot.” Why can’t we continue to “melt together” instead of tearing each other down & destroying history. We need to come together not segregate... We need to not let democracy be destroyed...

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Fri, 03/05/2021 - 11:08

In reply to by Susan Marsh (not verified)

Just because you didn't know about racism, or associate it with racism, doesn't mean that it didn't affect you in a negative way. Speaking out about racism is not "destroying history" or "tearing each other down." It is elevating everyone to the same level. It is celebrating everyone. It is making democracy better.

Submitted by Jimdeere (not verified) Sun, 03/07/2021 - 18:35

I remember as a small boy thinking how brave Sambo was and how I would have liked to be his friend.

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Sun, 03/07/2021 - 18:56

In reply to by Jimdeere (not verified)

I'm glad you were able to get a good message out of this book. For others, it's much more difficult.

Submitted by Trudy (not verified) Sat, 03/20/2021 - 16:20

It’s an old story. It was believed and accepted way back when. Kids loved it! I’m tired of people being offended with stuff that happened umpteen years ago!

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Sat, 03/20/2021 - 19:23

In reply to by Trudy (not verified)

So you're okay with slavery?

Submitted by Just me thank you (not verified) Sun, 03/21/2021 - 23:56

First off the book you have listed is not her illustrations and yes it was about India not America. Read on for the facts not fiction about this book.

Helen Brodie Cowan Bannerman (née Watson; 25 February 1862 – 13 October 1946) was a Scottish author of children's books. She is best known for her first book, Little Black Sambo (1899).

Bannerman was born at 35 Royal Terrace, Edinburgh. She was the eldest daughter and fourth child of seven children of Robert Boog Watson (1823-1910), minister of the Free Church of Scotland and malacologist, and his wife Janet (1831-191, daughter of Helen Brodie and the papermaker and philanthropist Alexander Cowan. Between the ages of 2 and 12 she lived in Madeira, where her father was minister at the Scottish church. When the family returned, they spent much time with their maternal aunt, Mrs Cowan at 35 Royal Terrace on Calton Hill.

Because women were not admitted into British universities, she sat external examinations set by the University of St. Andrews, attaining the qualification of Lady Literate in Arts (LLA) in 1887.

She then married Dr William Burney Bannerman, a physician and an officer in the Indian Medical Service (IMS).[1]

The couple then moved to India in 1889, taking up residence in Madras (modern-day Chennai),[4] capital of the state of Tamil Nadu on the southeastern seacoast, populated mostly by the Tamil ethnic group. During their 30 years in India they had four children: daughters Janet (b. 1893) and Day (b. 1896), and sons James "Pat" Patrick (b.1900) and Robert (b. 1902).

She died in Edinburgh in 1946 of cerebral thrombosis.[1] She is buried with her husband in Grange Cemetery in south Edinburgh.

There is very little to say about the story of Little Black Sambo. Once upon a time there was an English lady in India, where black children abound and tigers are everyday affairs, who had two little girls. To amuse these little girls she used now and then to invent stories, for which, being extremely talented, she also drew and coloured the pictures. Among these stories Little Black Sambo, which was made up on a long railway journey, was the favorite: and it has been put into a Dumpy Book, and the pictures copied as exactly as possible, in the hope that you will like it as much as the two little girls did.

You can read it and view it as the first edition and original drawings here:

First Edition Identification and Notes
On October 31, 1899, The Story of Little Black Sambo was first published by Grant Richards as one in a series of small-format books called The Dumpy Books for Children. The book was an instant success, running to four editions in its first year.

The Story of Little Black Sambo is a children’s book written and illustrated by Scottish-born author Helen Bannerman for her children while her family was living in India. The story of a young Indian boy who outsmarts four tigers that threaten to eat him has been noted a controversial with its publication in the United States, accused of presenting racist overtones, primarily because of its illustrations. However, many “American editions” were pirated versions, lacking Bannerman’s name on the title page, that were reillustrated, producing degrading caricatures.

First Edition Identification and Notes
On October 31, 1899, The Story of Little Black Sambo was first published by Grant Richards as one in a series of small-format books called The Dumpy Books for Children. The book was an instant success, running to four editions in its first year.

Other Collectible or Notable Editions
Frederick A. Stokes of New York published the first US edition of Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo in 1900. After the story was reproduced in many pirated versions, Stokes moved to affix the line “The Only Authorized American Edition” to its 1923 edition to maintain some kind of distinction in the marketplace.

Submitted by Cassandra Gelvin Mon, 03/22/2021 - 01:20

In reply to by Just me thank you (not verified)

Look at page 1 of your PDF. You will see that it is a smaller version of page 22 of your PDF, which is EXACTLY THE SAME IMAGE as the one on the cover of the version I linked. Of course it's not the first edition. I'd have to go to a museum for that, as the book was published in 1921.

And you seem to have copy and pasted the Wikipedia article on Helen Bannerman into my comments section. If you look at the third page of the PDF you linked to, you will see that "Black Mumbo", the character of the child's mother, is clearly depicted wearing, as kkh369 put it, "stereotypical 'Black Mammy'" garb. It doesn't matter what Helen Bannerman claims she was doing. It doesn't even matter what she thought she was doing. What she actually WAS doing was creating stereotypical, caricatured illustrations. Yes, there were other, often pirated, versions produced after hers that were worse. But hers was still bad. I even mention those other versions in my original post: "The edition with Bannerman's original illustrations, like many of the early editions of the book with similarly racist illustrations by other artists, is bad." I am getting sick and tired of people trying to make excuses for Bannerman. Looking at this PDF, and pages like 3 or 44, just reminds me of how horrible this book is.