Monday, February 21, 2011

BDHT: Little Black Sambo's True Ethnicity

I recall owning a 1960s Golden Book, Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman as a child.  It was not until I began collecting vintage dolls that I rediscovered the Little Black Sambo book, purchased a 1961 copy, read it, and remembered enjoying the story of how the little boy outwitted the greedy tigers who coveted his new clothing and umbrella -- birthday gifts from his parents, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo (yes... these were the names Bannerman gave his parents). 

Later, I located an older copy of Little Black Sambo from 1942 and purchased it.   I have used both copies along with a doll I fashioned to look like the character in the 1942 book as part of my Dolls with Books exhibit.  

Before creating my doll, research on Little Black Sambo dolls led me to the New Deal Network website and a link to the Milwaukee Works Progress Administration (WPA) Handicraft Project.  According to the link,    
The Milwaukee WPA Handicraft Project (Project #1170; 1935-43) was designed for women who needed to work in order to support their families. At the time, only certain jobs were considered appropriate for women. Those jobs included library and clerical work, nursing, housekeeping, and handicrafts. Harriet Clinton, who directed the Women's Division of the Wisconsin WPA, chose to create a project involving sewing and textiles.
The Project's catalog of dolls ( contains links to images of a Little Black Sambo doll made by project workers in 1939.  The doll's original cost was $2.00.  A girl counterpart, described as "Negro, black curly hair," is also included in the catalog.  These dolls and others of this size are described as: 

22-inch high, with molded head, washable and unbreakable. The body is made of percale stuffed with kapok. Heads are of ribbed cotton which is starched, pressed in a mold, stuffed, and painted. Hair is made of cotton warp in various colors and styles and can be washed. Each doll comes with a 6-piece wardrobe.
The referenced website also includes an image of a little girl holding the WPA Little Black Sambo doll.

My homemade Little Black Sambo doll, the 1942 and 1961 versions of the Little Black Sambo book are included in chapter 9 of my second Black-doll reference book, Black Dolls:  A Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion.   The image and text from the book follows:

Illustration 906 - Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, The Saalfield Pub. Co., 1942 (first published in 1898); Whitman Publishing Company 1961 (smaller book) – Ms. Bannerman was a Scottish woman, whose husband served in the British army in India.  According to research, the term “Sambo” is only used offensively in current British English.  Formerly (during the time Little Black Sambo was written), it had the technical meaning of a person having a mixture of black and white ancestry, more black than white.  In the early 19th Century, some British people referred to native East Indians as “Sambos” because of their dark complexion, which is the most probable reason for the book’s title.  In the original story, Little Black Sambo was a native of East India as noted by his turban and curled toe shoes.  After the story migrated to America, the characters’ (Sambo’s and his parents’) ethnicity changed from East Indian to AA to coincide with the word, “black” used in the title of the book.   Interestingly, the [1960] copy illustrates characters of East Indian descent while the 1942 copy uses illustrations of a cute, chubby AA boy.  It is unknown when the first Little Black Sambo dolls were made, but documentation exists that one version was made in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  For the “Dolls with Books” exhibit, I used a 1970s unmarked vinyl doll from my collection, added curly black, rooted hair; and dressed the doll in clothing to replicate the inside illustrations of the 1942 book.  The doll adequately represents the storybook character, who outwits several greedy tigers’ attempt to take away the lad’s birthday presents. 

While most books illustrate Little Black Sambo as a Black boy, the character's original ethnicity was East Indian.

Book Images:


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  1. Now that was interesting! It's amazing to actual hear the true background of these famous characters. Mumbo and Jumbo, really?

  2. I had the same reaction to his parents' names when I read the book as an adult.



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