Friday, October 17, 2014


The Front Cover

Just a few days ago while I was rummaging through some old records I’d saved, I came upon the cover for a ‘40s recording. Ooooold! The brittle record is long since gone, dropped and smashed to pieces. I’d forgotten I even had this old cover. I remember it so well, the repetitive telling about the shoes with “crimson soles and crimson linings”, and the tigers going off bragging “Now I’m the grandest tiger in all the jungle.”  I even remember the very regal and pompous music that accompanied them as each tiger sauntered away. (Or am I remembering something from Peter and the Wolf? The mind is a strange thing!)
Inside Front Cover

Until recently I never knew that this book, Little Black Sambo, was controversial. The recorded version is the story in my head. I googled “crimson soles and crimson linings”, and it gave me the Project Gutenberg copy of a volume from 1906.  Well – I’d say that was controversial!  What was the illustrator thinking? At that time the story was written in 1899, by a British author about an Indian Boy, the story was fairly innocuous.  But by the time it hit America and was re-illustrated, especially in the 1906 version, they didn’t think much about who would be hurt by what.  I really didn’t look at the record cover when I was little, I just listened to a story about an Indian boy. Black, to me, was part of his name, not what he looked like.

Read the first line: "Once upon a time in far-off India"

The illustrations on the Gutenberg page are right out of the South of Joel Chandler Harris, but with a monkey or a macaw added in here or there. Ain't no monkeys here! It is no wonder the American versions cause so much controversy. The read-along story on the record jacket, which in few ways resembles the story I think I memorized while listening, says the boy lived “in far-off India”. That was always the place in my head: India. ‘India’ appears in the 1906 version only in parenthesis to expand on the melted butter “or “ghi” as it is called in India”. The illustrations on the record cover I scanned in for this essay hint of the 40’s in America – only the tiger is out of place. There's not a monkey or macaw to be seen.  I suppose that by the 40’s people realized that the original story was basically a good one for children, but that many people would be offended by it as it stood in the 1906 version. It seems to me that in neither that version nor the 40’s recording do the stories and illustrations complement each other.
"And Little Black Sambo was so hungry he ate one hundred and sixty-nine,"

I do see that now there are more modern versions, especially with names changed to Indian sounding names like Babaji, and it's too bad that Helen Bannerman didn't use them in her original story, but even then there are critics of that one being partly “politically incorrect”. I suppose we can’t please all of the people all of the time, but I was pleased to come upon the record cover and recall the story I knew.

This was just a blog prompted by an old treasure. What will I find next?


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