As I discussed in two posts during Banned Books Week, I believe in making current First Amendment law in the United States more robust so that public school boards and libraries have less authority to remove controversial books from curricula and shelves. I am concerned that content-based book removals are particularly harmful to children who come from more sheltered or less literate backgrounds and are thus unlikely to encounter these books any other way. I object to inherently subjective age or content warnings on books, too, because they would enable censorship-happy people to do what they love most of all: restrict what other people read.
But what are my limits? I think few people truly believe that all content should be available to all people at all ages and at all times. As a parent, I have much more leeway to censor my child’s reading material (but not the reading material of other people’s children) than public school boards and libraries limited by the First Amendment (private schools can often do whatever they want; the U.S. Constitution doesn’t apply to their decisions).
My views about what I would allow in my house are constantly evolving in response to my parenting experience. I am less likely to allow my very young children to read books that contain lewd or revolting themes because I believe that such young children are unable to process those types of content. I am not talking about books aimed at older adolescents or books that use racist language to teach a lesson that undermines intolerance, like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. Rather, I am talking about books like Little Black Sambo, which a Scottish woman living in colonial India wrote for young children in 1899, when racial epithets were more overtly accepted than they are today.
Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo has been controversial for quite some time. My parents (one of whom is a Sri Lankan woman who has lived in southern India) refused to read it to me in the mid-1980s, and so the very first time I read the original text was this past weekend when I was more than a quarter-century older than the book’s intended audience. It features a boy named “Little Black Sambo” with a mother named “Black Mumbo” and a father named “Black Jumbo.” The little boy meets hungry tigers, who fight over his clothing to the point that they are somehow reduced to butter. The little boy gets his clothes back and then eats pancakes made out of the buttery tiger remains.
The storyline is innocuous enough, but I would never want my children repeating the names in this book. Not only is “Sambo” a racial epithet in the United States–a derogatory name for a person of African heritage (even if Sambo is likely a Tamil child in the original version)–but the overemphasis placed on skin color so that it is actually part of the characters’ names also makes me uncomfortable. Without being old enough and knowledgeable enough to understand the racist meaning of these words, a child could use one of the words and unintentionally harm others.
HLS professor Randall Kennedy, whose African American legal history course I took back in law school, has written that it’s not the controversial word itself, but the context of how that word is used that should matter (“the speaker’s aims, effects, alternatives”), and I agree except when it comes to very small children whose targets may also be too young to understand the innocence with which the speaker uttered those hateful words. Some may think it’s enough to simply tell a small child that they shouldn’t say those words, but I know from experience how hard it is to erase a word from a child’s vocabulary (our current struggle is to stop one of our four-year-olds from saying “crap!”).
I would rather that my children not use racially insensitive words at all, and the best way of ensuring this outcome is to shield my children from these words until they are old enough to understand their effect. As a person who went from being a so-called “Model Minority” to a suspicious “Other” after 9/11/01, I can tell you that it’s hard to forget being singled out because of your perceived race. I would not want my children to put anyone else in that position, and there is a real risk that a child’s use of these words is likely to be misunderstood as a sign of racism in the home and not simply as a childish accident.
Bannerman’s book is controversial enough to have led the publishing industry to cleanse it of the racist language, transforming Little Black Sambo into The Boy and The Tigers and The Story of Little Babaji (among other sanitized versions). The names of the characters and the illustrations are different, but the storyline remains largely the same. Honestly, I am not sure sanitizing this story is worth it. If parents do not like the potentially racist message, then they do not have to read it to their children; then again, there is nothing illegal about a private publishing company cleansing a book to which it has the rights, and doing so might make the book more appealing to a wider percentage of the market.
You can’t please everyone, though, and some people have decried the rehabilitation of racist classics, a reaction based largely on nostalgia. For example, The Morning Critic lamented recently, “[T]here was one copy of ‘The only authorized American Edition,’ of The Story of Little Black Sambo. I love this story. Unfortunately, it was not the book I remembered.”
Speaking about the cleansing of Enid Blyton’s children’s books, Edd McCracken on The Huffington Post’s blog, writes:
Books are written in and are a record of a certain time and place. We read books to visit these fixed points. So, to change passages years later is to warp history. In Blyton’s case, it gives the impression that her time was free from racist language and stereotypes. It is a deeply unhelpful edit.
It has been too long since I last read an Enid Blyton book for me to comment on the content of her work (I’ve read it only because my Australian cousins sent us a box of her works, which were not particularly popular in the US), but I find McCracken’s criticism of the revisions to be rather odd. I would not call rooting out hurtful and unnecessary racist epithets “unhelpful” when the audience is impressionable children and not historians or adults who would appreciate the historical context. Whatever historical value my four-year-olds could possibly glean from the original books would be outweighed by the harm the normalization of racist and sexist themes could cause.
In the end, the cleansing of racist themes by private entities from children’s literature probably only ruins the book for adults who want to relive their childhoods and for historians who are otherwise incapable of accessing the original books from used bookstores and rare book libraries.
While over-zealous cleansing of controversial material in children’s books could end up being no better than a book ban (without First Amendment implications if performed by a private entity), I do not mourn the loss of the racially insensitive original version of Little Black Sambo, which I will never read to my children. The Boy and the Tigers and The Story of Little Babaji, which do little more to the text than remove the needlessly offensive names and alter the offensive illustrations, are both welcome in my house, even if the simplistic and outlandish storyline is not nearly as good as any of the other children’s books we own. I don’t think this book would be worth reading at all if not for the nostalgia and controversy.