Skip to main content

Racism in kids’ classics: what do you do…?

possibly controversial picture of Little Black Sambo

One of my favourite books as a child was Little Black Sambo, by Helen Bannerman.  At left, you can see the cover illustration – this is basically what all the pictures in the book looked like:  grinning dark faces (his and his parents, Black Mumbo and Black Jumbo), interspersed with a few leering tigers. 

imageA friend yesterday was talking about “censoring” a classic kids’ story because of its racist, sexist content (after Reconstruction, black girl was finally permitted to attend school with her brothers!).

She also mentioned a passage from Little House where Pa sings a song that has really racist lyrics.  When I read that to my kids, I simply changed the words – as I told her, there’s a reason we can read and our young kids can’t.

I also thought of the sections from Little House on the Prairie which deal with the Indians who live on the land the Ingalls family is trying to settle – particularly of Laura’s obsession with seeing a “papoose,” and at one point, even begging to HAVE one (ie, own it!).

I did read Little House to my kids, and along the way we had what I think were a few nice, brief conversations about tensions between First Nations and white people over the land. 

When I look at some of the book recommendations for Charlotte Mason and other classical-type homeschooling, though, I wonder, especially coming at it from a Jewish point of view when so much of the canon of Great Literature in English is written from a white, Christian, Euro-centric perspective.

imageSo I’m wondering where other parents draw the lines in the sand.  Where do you skip a book entirely?  Where do you censor it?  And where do you choose to read troubling texts “as-is” but supplement the readings with your own explanations and understandings of how the words are written and the attitudes behind them?

I really do want to know.  Any thoughts are welcome!

In terms of Little Black Sambo, I have read two versions to my kids – one by Fred Marcellino called Little Babaji:  exactly the same story, still set in India, with a jolly Indian boy, not a black one (the parents are called Mamaji and Papaji), and another renamed Little Black Sambo, which plops Sambo, a spunky African boy, deep into exotic Indian settings.  The children enjoyed both versions without blinking or really caring about the blackness of Sambo or Babaji one way or another…

image image


  1. If a book was truly racist (i.e. the book itself treated those of other races as less capable and less valuable) then I don't think I would use it with younger children unless I had some compelling reason otherwise (NOTHING else that would work). Obviously such books might be very important for teens to understand and analyze as part of a study of history or philosophy.
    If a book presented racist attitudes of various people that were appropriate for the place and time in which they lived, but the author didn't seem to be condoning it, then I would read and discuss or not depending on the circumstances. (Too much preaching can do more harm than too little.) *Little House on the Prairie* fell into this camp for me; we did discuss the comments of the neighbor who thought the natives had no right to the land because they didn't farm, we talked about the causes of the conflict and past wrongs, but we ignored Laura's desire to have a "papoose" which just seemed like innocent childish greed, like wanting a baby brother.
    If a book is incidentally racist--i.e., it presents people as "different" in a way that is currently considered offensive, but is not actually saying anything negative about the *value* of those people, then I probably would just let it pass, or if necessary point out that we don't use those terms/draw people that way/etc. anymore. *Little Black Sambo* is in this category, I think. It's only the drawings and the names which are now considered insensitive; the story itself is just a rollicking folktale. I like both the alternatives you mentioned, but I don't think there's any deep harm in the original, either, since children are no more likely to take it seriously than they are to consider *The Three Billy Goats Gruff* as a guide to the behavior of goats.

  2. As South Africans we are really sensitive to racial issues that are so deeply embedded in our history.
    I am often touched by the sensitivity that even very young children have when we discuss racial issues that crop up in some books.
    Strangely, my high schooler's curriculum 2 years ago covered SA modern history and I expected her to have an emotional response to the photos and information, but to her it was 'history'.
    Books are wonderful tools to open up issues and facilitate deep and meaningful discussions.


Post a Comment

I love your comments!

Popular posts from this blog

לימודי קודש/Limudei Kodesh Copywork & Activity Printables

Welcome to my Limudei Kodesh / Jewish Studies copywork and activity printables page.  As of June 2013, I am slowly but surely moving all my printables over to 4shared because Google Docs / Drive is just too flaky for me. What you’ll find here: Weekly Parsha Copywork More Parsha Activities More Chumash / Tanach Activities Yom Tov Copywork & Activities Tefillah Copywork Pirkei Avos / Pirkei Avot Jewish Preschool Resources Other printables! For General Studies printables and activities, including Hebrew-English science resources and more, click here . For Miscellaneous homeschool helps and printables, click here . If you use any of my worksheets, activities or printables, please leave a comment or email me at Jay3fer “at” gmail “dot” com, to link to your blog, to tell me what you’re doing with it, or just to say hi!  If you want to use them in a school, camp or co-op setting, please email me (remove the X’s) for rates. If you just want to say Thank You, here’s a

Hebrew/ עברית & English General Studies Printables

For Jewish Studies, including weekly parsha resources and copywork, click here . If you use any of my worksheets, activities or printables, please leave a comment or email me at Jay3fer “at” gmail “dot” com, to link to your blog, to tell me what you’re doing with it, or just to say hi!  If you want to use them in a school, camp or co-op setting, please email me (remove the X’s) for rates. If you enjoy these resources, please consider buying my weekly parsha book, The Family Torah :  the story of the Torah, written to be read aloud – or any of my other wonderful Jewish books for kids and families . English Worksheets & Printables: (For Hebrew, click here ) Science :  Plants, Animals, Human Body Math   Ambleside :  Composers, Artists History Geography Language & Literature     Science General Poems for Elemental Science .  Original Poems written by ME, because the ones that came with Elemental Science were so awful.  Three pages are included:  one page with two po

What do we tell our kids about Chabad and “Yechi”?

If I start by saying I really like Chabad, and adore the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, z"l, well... maybe you already know where I'm headed. Naomi Rivka has been asking lately what I think about Chabad.  She asks, in part, because she already knows how I feel.  She already knows I’m bothered, though to her, it’s mostly about “liking” and “not liking.”  I wish things were that simple. Our little neighbourhood in Israel has a significant Chabad presence, and Chabad conducts fairly significant outreach within the community.  Which sounds nice until you realize that this is a religious neighbourhood, closed on Shabbos, where some huge percentage of people are shomer mitzvos.  Sure, it’s mostly religious Zionist, and there are a range of observances, for sure, but we’re pretty much all religious here in some way or another. So at that point, this isn’t outreach but inreach .  Convincing people who are religious to be… what? A lot of Chabad’s efforts here are focused on kids, including a