The story concerned a boy who was out walking in his fine clothes when he was accosted by a team of tigers. The little boy climbs a tree, but the tigers will not go away. The boy ends up throwing his fine clothes and parasol down to the tigers. The tigers fight amongst themselves and then run around the tree until they turn into ghee - which is clarified butter. The boy climbs down, gets dressed, and takes the delicious ghee home to his mother. She makes pancakes for everyone.
That's a fun story.
When it was first published, the western world praised the tale as a positive book for children about black people. Most children's books of the time showed black people as brutish, violent, and stupid.
This black child defeated tigers.
The name of the book? Little Black Sambo.
Sambo is depicted as a pickaninny. This is a racial stereotype of a black child who is associated with idiocy and violence. It was a dehumanizing way to think of black children. The fact that he defeated tigers was considered a step forward.
Why did Bannerman pick the name "Sambo"?
It would surprise nobody to know that the word "sambo" is an ethnic slur that means you have "Indian Blood". That's how the English referred to this group of "lesser" people in their empire.
"Black Sambo" was also a slur. It meant that not only was your blood of Indian origin, there was also some African somewhere in you.
Anyone reading the book at the time understood that the hero of the tale was an "other" in the way the white Europeans thought of others. The idea that somebody black would either read this book or have some thought about how they were being depicted didn't cross anybody's mind.
Most people in the dominant culture of the western world had absolutely no problem with ethnic slurs. In fact, they didn't think of them as slurs. They thought of them as the truth. The language was created to make sure that those who deserved to be held higher in esteem got to determine what the lesser people were going to be called. Otherwise, how could you make sure they knew they were lesser?
In the late 1800s, none of this was problematic. It was an accepted way to think about this story, those people, and how society worked. It was lauded as a more humanizing depiction of blacks.
I spent a morning learning about Little Black Sambo. I had no interest in it before I started my research, but now I am fascinated!
1) I was told Little Black Sambo was based on an Indian Folktale. It is not. It came fully formed from Bannerman's head.
2) Bannerman misappropriated things from two different cultures to create this tale.
3) People have been trying to save this story for some reason for a couple of generations. I'm not really sure why.
4) Bannerman wrote a number of these little stories, and except for one, all of them start with "Little Black" and then a name. I am almost interested in finding out more about these other "Little Black" books.
5) Why was she so hot to write these odd books with African Americans engaging with animals and items native to India? Did she know any black children? What was her motivation other than amusing her children? Did she have any motivation?
6) This story should be used not to talk about the racist pictures (they are really bad), but to talk about what happens when you just throw things together without giving the slightest thought to the people or cultures from which they are misappropriated.
7) To be fair to the society that spawned Little Black Sambo, what did a white, privileged woman know about black people? Besides, she was championing a better image of black folks, right? She didn't mean any harm, right?
Cultural appropriation was not a thing in the 1800s. If you doubt it, go into a British museum. They spent the 1800s pillaging every culture they came across without a shred of concern!
|The Great Maya Angelou|
How many Little Black Sambo moments have you had? How many times have you blithely walked down a road and into a buzz saw you didn't even know was there?
I was lucky enough to see Dovie Thomason tell when I was still in my tender years as a storyteller. I don't recall just where, but I know it was in the first five years. She said something that set me back on my heels.
"I am telling these tales, but you do not have permission to tell these tales."
I sat there in confusion for a handful of minutes before she started telling the stories. As she told them, I saw them as they were; beautiful, powerful, personal, and hers. They belonged to her at some level that they could not belong to me. I was fascinated.
So, I insinuated myself next to her at some meal and proceeded to ask about her stories. I received what has got to be the most eye-opening lecture about stories I had ever had. That woman took me to school. By the time she was done with me that afternoon, everything looked very different.
I made some decisions about what I would and would not incorporate in my work. I made some decisions about how I would go about collecting stories, and I would be really careful about stories that were an active part of any religion whether I belonged to it or not.
So. All solved, right? No.
I keep learning more about cultures, ideas, people, and subjects. I discover that there are tales I should purge or learn something about before I go further. I learn that some words no longer work or apply. I learn that often I have had a backward idea about a thing in history and I have to rethink a whole bunch of ideas and assumptions.
I learn, and learn, and learn and re-imagine, and re-imagine, and re-imagine.
What have I learned?
1) You are human. You can't know everything, so learn when someone points something out to you. They could be right. They could be wrong. Look into it.
2) When you encounter new information, consider it. Look into it. It might be right. It might be wrong. You won't know until you investigate.
3) You are human, failable and forgivable. If you get it wrong, correct it. Don't keep committing the same foul over and over.
4) Don't be afraid to learn. Don't be afraid to be wrong.
5) Adjust. The best thing about folklore is that it travels and speaks to people. See how many versions of the story you can find. If you discover that this tale comes in many versions, either create your own based on the elements of the story or pick a version that does not have serious cultural issues.
You have only the language you know in which to tell a story. When you are telling it, you could be using images and language to talk about a culture that is insulting, belittling, and damaging.
You wouldn't be doing this on purpose. The language you are using was created by the dominant culture. That culture often uses language to discriminate against the surrounding cultures by naming and categorizing the people.
It is a difference so slight you might not even realize it.
For instance -
When referring to the state of bondage African Americans lived in prior to the abolishment of slavery, it is more accurate to refer to the people as "enslaved" as opposed to "slaves"
Enslaved is something someone has wrongly done to you.
Slave is a thing you are.
When referring to the state of people who are here in America without paperwork it is more accurate to call them "undocumented" than "illegal"
Undocumented refers to the status of your paperwork. There are all sorts of people in this country who were invited to America who are undocumented. Migrant workers are a good example of that.
Illegal suggests that there are two types of people: Legal and illegal. If you are illegal, you are lesser. You deserve less. You can be treated as less. Your needs and concerns are less.
What about this story?
Think about the way our society tells stories about people. What language do we use when we want to dehumanize? What language do we use when we want to make people sound scary or dangerous? What language do we use to throw blame away from ourselves and onto victims or oppressed people?
Language is a tricky thing.
Stories can always be used to spread darkness. Sometimes this happens completely by accident.
Our presuppositions are invisible to us unless we hunt them down.
Part 1 - Cultural Misapproriationis A Better Term: Some Thoughts
Part 2 The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility
Part 3 - Cultural Misappropriation Is Easy To Do: The Accidental Appropriator
Part 4 - How Do You Know If You Don't Know Enough?
Part 5 - What Does It Look Like to be an Ally in Your Own Work?