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culture

Historicist: Banning Little Black Sambo

The black community's campaign to rid Toronto schools of the offensive children's book.

Is The Story of Little Black Sambo, the children’s book written and illustrated by Helen Bannerman in 1899, the fantastical tale of a heroic boy who faces danger courageously, outwitting tigers and being rewarded with pancakes? Or is it a prejudiced story whose caricaturized illustrations of blacks had invidious and hurtful effects on generations of black children? That was the question faced by the Toronto Board of Education in 1955 when a concerned parent objected to Sambo‘s presence in his son’s school. The ensuing debate prompted a furor across North America.

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On December 2, 1955, Paul Braithwaite, a six-year-old student at Essex Street Public School, returned home in a disturbed state. During an after-school fundraising event, the children had been shown a colour film version of The Story of Little Black Sambo, Helen Bannerman’s long-beloved children’s book—most likely the 1935 cartoon produced by Ub Iwerks. Paul’s father sighed: “I was taunted by this Sambo business when I was small and vividly remember when a big white boy grabbed hold of my neck and rubbed his hand in my hair, saying, ‘Hello da Sambo’.” Paul had already experienced similar taunts and Daniel “Danny” Braithwaite thought the continued acceptance of Sambo in the school environment would encourage further discriminatory attitudes among pupils. “Well, this was it! I was finally confronted with the task of having that story removed from the Toronto Public Schools,” Braithwaite later recalled in a blow-by-blow account of his actions published in 1978.

(Above left: Coverage in the Globe and Mail [December 16, 1955].)

Braithwaite’s local school trustee was Edna Ryerson who, despite being an avowed Communist, had won every election in Ward 5 since 1944 on the strength of her advocacy for hiring crossing guards and supplying free milk to children. She was sympathetic to his concern and urged him to submit a letter of protest to the Toronto Board of Education, and she spoke vigorously in support of Braithwaite’s cause when his letter—along with another written by John White, editor of the Canadian Negro newspaper—was discussed at a board meeting on December 15.

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Although Ryerson made the case that the book, or the story in any other format, portrayed blacks “as a people with little dignity or culture,” her colleagues on the board were unenthusiastic. “When the principal realized it would offend Mr. Braithwaite,” explained Z.S. Phimister, Superintendent of Public Schools, “he called him, apologized and said it shouldn’t happen again.” Phimister argued the matter be dropped; but Ryerson succeeded in insisting that a formal recommendation be prepared for the board’s management committee.

(Right: Illustration by Helen Bannerman from her The Story of Little Black Sambo [Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1923].)

The resulting report written by Phimister and Director of Education C.C. Goldring and tabled on January 6, 1956 was dismissive of Braithwaite’s concerns. “It is felt that it is unwise to ban from the Public Schools a book which has such a wide appeal for children,” it concluded, “and which cannot be said to be discriminatory in that it is a children’s fantasy which portrays a little negro boy who has a great adventure in the jungle, from which he emerges successfully.” Newspaper coverage of this initial debate likewise denied any legitimacy to Braithwaite’s claims, dismissing the very idea of racial intolerance in Toronto as Communist rabble-rousing.

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Braithwaite, who had a long history of community activism, was not dissuaded. Though born in Nova Scotia, Braithwaite had lived in Toronto since his childhood, attending Ryerson Public School and Central Tech. As a teenager, he became active in the black community, assuming leadership roles in the United Negro Improvement Association’s youth wing, and the Young Men’s Negro Association in the late 1930s. His resistance to being drafted into the army in 1942—on the grounds that his voluntary service to the Canadian Air Force had been refused because he was black—prompted his brief incarceration during the Second World War. After the war, he remained active in his community, leading an early effort to ban Little Black Sambo through the Joint Council of Negro Youth conference in 1944. Braithwaite helped found the Canadian Negro newspaper and the Toronto Negro Citizenship Committee, both in 1950, and the Library of Black People’s Literature in 1962.

(Above left: Coverage in the Globe and Mail [January 11, 1956].)

So, calling upon his connections in the black community, he mustered support from the railway employee unions, community service organizations, and social clubs like the Open-Door-Club, gathering letters of support confirming that the Sambo book was “an affront to human dignity.” The ethnic press was supportive of Braithwaite’s efforts, particularly Jean Daniels and others involved with the Canadian Negro. The strongest letter of support came from sociologist and celebrated activist Daniel G. Hill.

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Where Phimister and Goldring’s report had been vague and impressionistic, Hill’s scholarly submission to the board overwhelmed with supporting evidence and citations:

The terms ‘Black Sambo’ and ‘Sambo’ are generally considered by Negroes on this continent to be despicable, derogatory epithets in the same category as ‘darky’, ‘nigger’, ‘pickaninny’, etc. A term that has the slightest suggestion of being odious to a particular ethnic group should not be sanctioned by officials in charge of public education. (I would suggest Board members read the works of Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist, and E. Franklin Frazier, the American Negro sociologist, on the use of terms injurious to the welfare of Negroes.)….

The terms ‘Black Sambo’ and ‘Sambo’ have been and still are used by other children as a manner of addressing and teasing Negro children. This is dangerous, for it maximizes racial differences and tends to make a child feel that he does not wholly belong to the culture….

In these days of international tension and strife, it seems imperative that educators assume their proper responsibility in the area of human relations: to instill in Canada’s future citizens a real respect for the dignity of all human beings, regardless of nationality, race or religion. Stories such as Little Black Sambo can only detract from that effort.

(Above right: A page from Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo [The Reilly and Britton Co., 1908], with illustrations by John R. Neill.)

But not all in the community rallied behind Braithwaite. The Canadian Negro Women’s Association, the Home Service Association, and the British Methodist Episcopal Church declined to participate in the protest, and the pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church was particularly derisive, telling Braithwaite “to go home and forget that I was Black.”

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Braithwaite’s supporters formed the Committee of Negro Parents to draft a brief, which Braithwaite presented to the Board of Education on February 2. “When a child hears the expression ‘sambo’ and sees the illustrations which portray it, it is not difficult to imagine the impact on this young mind,” the brief read, “and when this is done within the school environment, and under the supervision of his teacher, erroneous impressions may become irremovable.”

(Left: Coverage in the Toronto Star [February 3, 1956].)

It concluded: “Our only purpose in appearing before you tonight is to call your attention to a term, which through the years has brought mental anguish and physical torment to Negro people at home and abroad. We are firmly convinced that it is detrimental to those who use it as to those to whom it is directed, and we respectfully request that this story of Little Black Sambo be removed from the school.”

A fiery, 90-minute debate followed, with Ryerson’s attempts to speak repeatedly cut off by the chairman. “I am somewhat tired of you making political issues out of racial issues,” chairman D.M. Morton loudly declared to the Communist trustee.

“This is book-burning,” superintendent Phimister declared, warning his colleagues that they’d be setting themselves on a dangerous path “along the same lines as book-burning and censoring to which there is no end.” He added: “‘Sensitivity to the word Sambo is in the minds of the minority and not of the majority. The word Sambo doesn’t mean anything bad to me.” Another trustee added that his own children loved the story and they’d “never thought of it as prejudicial to any race.” Another conceded that the book should be removed, but only from specific schools where it was perceived to cause offense.

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The Committee of Negro Parents’ well-argued case and the weight of community pressure convinced most trustees. At the end of the contentious debate, the board resolved—by a vote of 14-2, with one abstention—to remove Little Black Sambo from all classrooms and school libraries.

(Right: Coverage in the Globe and Mail [February 3, 1956].)

News of the Toronto board’s decision spread swiftly across North America. For every newspaper that was supportive—notably the Toronto Star, and the Canadian Negro—there were seemingly dozens of outlets that ridiculed the Little Black Sambo ban as “amiable nonsense,” in the words of the Winnipeg Free Press. One “expert in children’s stories” told the Milwaukee Journal: “Minorities must have tolerance, too.”

The Globe and Mail responded with poor attempts at humour: an editorial in which the word “black” was repeatedly censored; and an editorial cartoon mocking “Phony Racial Issues” as communist ploys. “Colored people have to learn to live with their pigmentation; it ought to be as easy for them to live with the name Sambo, especially when it is used affectionately as in the book,” long-time columnist J.V. McAree proclaimed in the same paper a few days later.

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An editorial in the Hamilton Spectator accused “unthinking” trustees being talked into accepting a false case of racial intolerance as genuine by “a sincere group of Negroes” and thus doing “the very thing that militates against a continuing crusade for genuine tolerance.”

(Left: Editorial cartoon by James G. Reidford from the Globe and Mail [February 4, 1956].)

The editorial continued: “We don’t blame the Negro people, although we don’t feel they could have thought out just what they were trying to accomplish. It was the school trustees who confirmed that jittery instinct of many of our elected officeholders to ride off in all directions at once when even a breath of ‘racial prejudice’ comes up.”

The Toronto Public Library’s chief librarian, Jean Thomson, told the Globe and Mail that Sambo was very popular with both black and white youngsters “without any suggestion of [them] harboring derogatory feelings.” She added: “It’s a pity that this book has to be made the butt of an issue.” In his memoir, Braithwaite acknowledged that Little Black Sambo “was deeply rooted and entrenched in the society, and loved by parents, educators, librarians, the mass media.”

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Calgary’s chief librarian, W.R. Castell, complained that blacks could not be legitimately offended by Sambo. Bannerman, an Englishwoman resident in India, penned the story to entertain her children on a train ride through that country, and included in it references to South Asian ghi (clarified butter) and Bengal tigers. Indeed, apart from the offensive character names—Sambo and his parents, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo—the criticism of Little Black Sambo has been less about the text itself but the illustrations.

(Right: Illustration by Helen Bannerman from her The Story of Little Black Sambo [Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1923].)

Bannerman’s original drawings depicted the characters, one literary critic argues, “as very dark and with exaggeratedly nonwhite features.” In subsequent North American editions through the ensuing decades, illustrations devolved into distorted caricatures where, another critic suggests, Sambo’s family has “minstrel-like qualities, full red lips and exaggerated white coloring of the eyes.” Such depictions in later reprints prompted Langston Hughes to label Sambo a “pickaninny” in the 1930s, and inspired activists to begin pushing for the storybook’s removal from schools.

There were, however, many enlightened responses to the board’s decision. While some Christian pastors worried what cultural works would be next on the chopping block, Rabbi Abraham L. Feinberg was effusive in praising the ban. “Little Black Sambo in the public schools encouraged race prejudice by creating a pattern of Negro minstrel show comicality in the minds of white children, and by arousing a sense of persecution and emotional insecurity in colored children,” the progressive rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple told his congregation. “Neither potential arrogance nor an inferiority complex is a proper seed-bed for Canadian citizenship.”

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The most thoughtful response was that of columnist Frank Tumpane in the conservative Toronto Telegram. Proclaiming that the ban should’ve occurred a long time ago, Tumpane explained his rationale: “It’s all very well for you and me to say: ‘Why, these people are being overly sensitive.’ The fact is we don’t know what we’re talking about if we say that, because we aren’t Negroes and aren’t faced with the problem.” He concluded: “And circulating a book in the Toronto schools that detracts from his dignity and makes him feel humiliated or apart is all wrong.”

(Left: A page from Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo [The Reilly and Britton Co., 1908], with illustrations by John R. Neill.)

After receiving a fair amount of critical backlash from readers—particularly from those professing that their childhood affection for the story hadn’t turned them into bigots—Tumpane doubled-down on his position. “One young woman asked me how I was qualified to say how Negroes felt about Little Black Sambo. ‘Are you a Negro?’ she asked. The answer to that is no. No, I’m not a Negro. My ancestors happened to be Irish,” Tumpane explained, cutting to the heart of everything wrong with the insinuations that this wasn’t a case of real prejudice. “But if I want to find out how a Negro feels about something I don’t ask an Irishman. I ask a Negro.” And if the black community identifies for themselves that their children are harmed by Little Black Sambo, Tumpane concluded, “that’s good enough for me.”

Tired of hearing negative public response to the ban for several weeks, Julia Kirkwood, a young black student, wrote a passionate letter to the Toronto Star in mid-Februrary. “I don’t understand how someone can comment on a subject he has never experienced—ridicule because of color,” she lamented. “I wonder how many white children have ever left a classroom after reading or having this book read to them to be greeted by the cries of their classmates, ‘Hey Black Sambo, where are your tigers?’ or ‘Sambo, what are you having for lunch—pancakes?’ I doubt if you could name one white child this has happened to, but I am sure that practically every Negro child who attended public school in Toronto or any school in Canada has had this experience.” Thanks to Danny Braithwaite’s efforts, at least one less offending cultural artifact would no longer be present in the classroom.

Sources consulted include: Daniel Braithwaite, The Banning of the Book ‘Little Black Sambo’ from the Toronto Public Schools 1956 (Overnight Typing & Copy Co., 1978); Karen Carole Flynn, Moving Beyond Borders (University of Toronto Press, 2011); Keith S. Henry, Black Politics in Toronto Since World War I (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981); Lambeth Hochwald, “Little book, big controversy,” Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243 No. 31 (July 29, 1996); Sanjay Sircar, “Little Brown Sanjay and Little Black Sambo: Childhood Reading, Adult Rereading,” The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 28, No. 1 (January 2004); and articles from the Globe and Mail (January 11, and February 3, 4, 7, 11, 13 & 16, 1956); and the Toronto Star (December 16, 1955; February 3 & 11, 1956).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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