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
www.JanetJensen.com), 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
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.
The Book Lover's Cookbook
By Shaunda Kennedy Wenger and Janet Kay Jensen
Ballantine Books, © 2003
Reading group discussion in the back of the book
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