This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

April 14, 2004 - little black sambo

A friend of mine recently lent me a copy - published in 1908 - of "The Story of Little Black Sambo."

As an artifact, it's beautiful. The binding is still snug, the cover illustrations still bright and appealing. The paper has hardly faded. The illustrations are for the most part whimsical, clever, and finely drawn. The print is large and handsome. They don't make books like that anymore.

As a story, this version is unusually good. Since many children today have never heard it, I'll summarize. Little Black Sambo acquires "a beautiful Green Umbrella and a lovely little Pair of Purple Shoes with Crimson Soles and Crimson Linings. And then wasn't Little Black Sambo grand?" While strolling through the jungle, he meets a series of tigers. He trades his beautiful clothes, piece by piece, in exchange for his life. But he gets them back. The tigers get so jealous of each other's finery that they chase each other around a tree, going faster and faster until they turn into butter. Delighted, Little Black Sambo's mother makes pancakes, and "Little Black Sambo ate a Hundred and Sixty-nine, because he was so hungry." Charming.

But there is a problem with the book. The illustrations in Little Black Sambo are about as racist as you can get. At first you don't notice that - you just think the illustrator can't draw people as well as he draws those wonderful tigers. But another story in the book shows beautiful little white children and yet another grotesque black child. In other words, the depictions of black children are deliberately ugly. That's racist.

So here's a good question for librarians. Should we buy books that promulgate racial - or sexual, for that matter - stereotypes?

Such books do exist. In most cases, I doubt that the racism (or sexism) is consciously intended. But authors are people. They soak up the full range of the attitudes and opinions of their cultures.

In one sense, it is the duty of librarians to preserve cultural evidence. Right now, Little Black Sambo isn't even in print. Enough people have called the story itself racist that few publishers are willing to risk its republication. This seems a tad revisionist to me. Children's literature hasn't always been enlightened. It isn't enlightened yet. We need to remember that.

There's another problem: who decides what's racist? What's sexist? It worries me when well-intentioned people want to clean up the world's classics because this year they happen to be politically incorrect. Some feminists would toss out Cinderella on the grounds that it's sexist. It is, too. Some mothers want to protect their children from the Grimm Brothers' tales by writing out all the spooky parts that make them so gripping. What do we replace them with?

I don't have any easy answers. But I do have an opinion, and it applies to all of next week, which just happens to be National Library Week. If you hear about a book that disturbs you, read it! Then talk about it. Books aren't supposed to make your life easy. They're supposed to make you think. That goes double for the classics.

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