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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn Rills on Literature, "Little Black Sambo" and the Politically Correct

They say our nose is our most memorable feature. I think the eyes but my husband would argue for ankles.

They say our sense of smell is the best memory-recaller of all our senses. I don't think many would argue with that. Though I think literature matches the nose. Especially children's literature.

In fact, as I was scanning The Book Lover's Cookbook: Recipes Inspired by Celebrated Works of Literature, and the Passages That Feature Them by Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and a new online friend of mine, Janet Kay Jensen, I was moved to write about memories.

Maybe it was the pancake recipe (this one made with a tablespoon of applesauce!) and the mention of Sambo. Sambo who was practically a staple for me in the pantry of children's literature. Sambo who made pancakes more than just breakfast food. Sambo of the exotic shoes with curled up toes. Sambo who helped me understand that one finds tigers in India as well as the Hogle zoo.

When I was growing up, we had Little Black Sambo restaurants even. There were illustrations of the story around the counter. That made me want to sit on a stool but no one would ever let me. Booth sitting was more our family's style.

Perhaps the view was better from a booth. There was Little Black Sambo, looking Indian, not African. And swirls of tiger butter. Black Mumbo, his mama, with her apron strings tied and yes, her white teeth looking very white, stirring up the batter. And, of course, those stacks of pancakes, one hundred and sixty-nine because Sambo was so hungry from all he had to do as the clever and courageous protagonist in that old children's story.

Of course, that was before we all got politically correct. Which I believe in, that politically correct business. But not when it comes to literature. Literature (in this case, a story by Helen Bannerman and the recipe book for book-lovers from these brave two women authors who dared buck the tide against those who would have us forget any story that has anything to do with race or stereotype including the Tales of Old Uncle Remus). They included Sambo as inspiration for pancake lovers everywhere!

Literature, it turns out, helps recall memories nearly as well as the sense of smell. When it comes to literature, I simply hate PC.

Stories like these - the ones we seem so happy to discard - give us a chance to tell our children about the way it was back then. To explain how big prejudices grow out of little ones, but also how valuable it is to understand our proclivities for generalizing so we can do battle with those baser instincts. They give us a chance to understand our history and, yes, to remember the innocence of childhood. I thought Sambo brave and, yes, I thought (even then) that Mumbo should probably not eat so many pancakes.

I do not recall that the story made me think that all people with dark skin ate too many pancakes or were, mmmm, overweight. Not a bit. Not any more than I thought that butter was really made from a mix of melted tiger and Sambo's courage.

So now. We no longer have Sambo's restaurant in Salt Lake City where I grew up. We can't find The Story of Little Black Sambo on the shelves or our libraries or bookstores. Unless we were clever enough to keep one of our old copies of Sambo stashed away in a bookcase somewhere, we don't have the books. I haven't seen one in decades.

Still, we do have -- and will always have -- oral tradition. And we do have authors like Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen who care more for books and tradition than they do politics.

Oh, yes. We do have our memories.

Tips and Tidbits

Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.

Writers' Tidbit: Many Internet experts are touting social networking as important to anyone in the business world, including authors. We are in the publishing business, after all. I prefer the groups that are focused (as opposed to chatty). John Kremer's Book Marketing Network and are two particular favorites. Start by building a profile page of your own. Then invite me to be a friend: on Book Marketing Network and LinkedIn ).

Readers' Tip: Spring is book fair time. It's a time to attend book fairs in your community and take your children along. It's time to budget for a few books, preferably a few full-priced books. You know. To support authors. To support publishing. On April 26 & 27 I'll be signing at the LA Times / UCLA Festival of Books on the beautiful UCLA Campus in the Authors Coalition booth, #610 and 611. (LA Times Site Festival of Books
section) And, as it happens, that booth is very near the children's section and the food section. If anyone finds a copy of "Little Black Sambo," let me know. (-:

2008 Past Columns

Literature, "Little Black Sambo" and the Politically Correct

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