Susan Triolo: Tintin controversy evokes thoughts of ‘Little Black Sambo’

Last modified: Wednesday, January 08, 2014
The controversy at the Jones Library reminds me of a recent discussion at the Sunderland Library’s Friday morning coffee group.

There’s a group of Amherst parents concerned about exposing their young children to books containing racial stereotypes. The 1930s-era “Tintin” series includes one called “Tintin in the Congo,” wherein an Amherst parent states that black people in the Congo are portrayed as imbeciles who are easily manipulated.

Children’s literature came up in a discussion in Sunderland where one of the participants remembered “Little Black Sambo” from his childhood as an example of good literature. It may be one of the few books that he remembers from his childhood, and certainly the only one that portrayed a black family. Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman, is certainly a book that contains racial stereotypes.

I did a bit of research on that book. Helen Bannerman initially wrote the story for her daughter while she was away from her. Within the fabulous western Massachusetts regional library collection, I was able to obtain a copy of the “only authorized American edition,” published in 1951. Over the years, there have been many retellings of “Little Black Sambo,” many with racial stereotypes as well. I discovered this little book has engendered much academic and public controversy over the years.

In 1996, Jerry Pinkney, a renowned children’s illustrator, through happenstance, began his own journey with “Little Black Sambo.” He felt the core of the story holds up over time — an intelligent and courageous young boy is able to outwit hungry tigers who want to eat him up. However, Pinkney wanted to retell the story in an updated manner, avoiding the racial stereotyping. He engaged the storytelling ability of local author and University of Massachusetts professor Julius Lester.

Together they wrote and illustrated “Sam and the Tigers.” It is the same story, however in their 1996 retelling, Sambo (a negative appellation, such as “Toby” for blacks in that era) evolved into Sam, and his family lived within a large, thriving community, with intelligent, engaged parents and neighbors. The illustrations show vibrant, multidimensional characters and settings, rather than the big-lipped single dimensional Mumbo and Jumbo (mother and father) of the original.

I applaud the Amherst parents who are concerned about what their children see and read. We are so fortunate that we live in an area where many of us are aware of the scourge of racism, and where many of us struggle toward greater understanding of white privilege. That is why I made the effort to share my thoughts about “Little Black Sambo” with my Sunderland chat group. And that is why parents need to use “Tintin” and other such materials as a teachable moment for all our children.

Perhaps those parents who wish to see those materials moved or removed can instead offer a community gathering at the Jones Library about “Tintin” discussing the racial stereotypes.

Maybe that could lead to a broader conversation about white privilege and what we are doing in our own communities to continue our work toward equality for all.

Susan Triolo is an early childhood and elementary school teacher.