Sunday, February 9, 2014

Dolls with Books Exhibit - Entry 5, The Finale

Little Black Sambo and Little Brown Koko and their books, part of the Dolls with Books Exhibit

The dolls in the second display case, second shelf, of my Dolls with Books Exhibit are featured in this final post.  Both dolls were inspired by storybooks that preceded them.  Their individual images (from my book, Black Dolls a Comprehensive Guide to Celebrating, Collecting, and Experiencing the Passion), their object labels, and additional commentary is below.

This 1970s doll* is dressed as Little Black Sambo, the character in the book, The Story of Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman, first published in 1899.  The original character in the book was a little boy from India.  After the story migrated to America, his ethnicity was changed to an AA boy.  The book published in 1942 contains illustrations of a chubby AA boy.  The 1961 publication illustrates an East Indian boy. 

Even with the potential to spark controversy and patron disapproval because of the name "Little Black Sambo," I did not hesitate to include my doll and his books in the exhibit.  I mentioned to the library manager after the display had been set up that I hoped he did not cause alarm.  Her reply, "It's a part of history" assured me that I made the right decision to include him.  

I owned  a 1960s copy of Little Black Sambo and recall reading it with my mother at around age 6.  As an adult, I learned that the original character in the book was not an African American child as American copies of the book often illustrated.  As I documented in Black Dolls a Comprehensive Guide... 

Ms. Bannerman was a Scottish woman whose husband served in the British army in India.  According to research, the term "Sambo" [was] used offensively in... 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 nineteenth-century, the British referred to 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 correspond with the word, "Black" used in the title of the book.  Interestingly, the [1961] copy (the smaller book) illustrates characters of East Indian descent while the1942 copy uses illustrations of a cute, chubby AA boy [and his AA parents].  

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 chose a 1970s unmarked vinyl doll from my collection to represent Sambo.  The doll was given curly black, rooted hair and dressed in clothing to replicate the birthday clothing given to the character by his parents--a red jacket, blue pants, and purple slippers.  The doll adequately represents the storybook character, who outwits several greedy tigers' attempts to take away his new clothes. 

*Before my doll became Sambo, he was "Gus," named by my grandson.  His original transformation from bald to rooted hair can be seen here.

The doll, Little Brown Koko and his dog Shoog, are characters from the book, Little Brown Koko, by Blanche Seale Hunt, first published in 1940.  The doll and dog on display are reproductions of the original Little Brown Koko and Shoog.  The book that inspired the cloth doll and dog contains a series of short stories about Little Brown Koko and his busybody antics.

My Little "Tan" Koko was made from a reproduction of an original Little Brown Koko pattern that was probably offered originally as a mail order item.  I purchased the pattern on eBay and commissioned someone to make the doll for me since original versions of the circa 1940s dolls made from patterns were cost prohibitive and often in various stages of deterioration.  I was not happy with the seamstress's selection of "tan" fabric for my doll. I wanted him brown!

The original Little Brown Koko stories by Blanche Seale Hunt were published in The Household Magazine, first appearing in Volume 41, No. 1, January 1, 1941. 

These two boys and the other 20 dolls in the current Dolls with Books Exhibit will remain at the library until the first week of March 2014.


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  1. I'm old enough to remember the British version of Little Black Sambo as it was still a reading book in school. I liked the story, of how the boy outwits the tiger and how the tiger turns into ghee (with an explanation of ghee included). 'Sambo' became an offensive term to call people and the book got swept away. I'm pretty amazed you found a copy as they're really rare in the UK. I didn't know that the story made it to the USA, or that they changed Sambo's nationality. I didn't know there were dolls, either. He needs his green umbrella!

    1. Hi Rhissanna,

      Thank you for sharing your experience with the British version of LBS. Yes, there were dolls made. I added a better link to the WPA doll.

      The actual story is cute, which is probably the reason my mother allowed me to read it. I don't recall if the version I read as a child used illustrations of a black child or an East Indian. I am thinking East Indian (I vaguely remember him wearing a turban). This is probably another reason I was allowed to read it. I know if the illustrations had been demeaning, I wouldn't have owned a copy.

      The characters' names; Sambo and his parents, Big Mumbo and Big Jumbo, and some of the earlier illustrations of the characters as black people were and still are considered extremely derogatory and the book was banned here as a result.

      In the book I read as a child, the ghee was called butter. The term ghee is used in my 1942 copy of the book.

      You are right, my doll needs his green umbrella! I considered making him one but axed the idea as I thought it would be too cumbersome to include in my prior one-day exhibits. If I am able to fashion one before this exhibit concludes, I will add it to the display case.


  2. The Little Black Sambo info was really interesting to me! I was not aware of the original origins of the story. I'm glad the manager felt it should be included in the exhibit.

  3. I didn't discover the origin of The Story of Little Black Sambo until the 1990s, Muff. It was certainly a revelation.



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