More Thoughts on the Censorship Spectrum: Cleansing Racist Themes From Children’s Books

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.


  1. A.M.B.: your last comment/reply has me wondering how many books it would take to start a child thinking too much about skin color. The beauty of children is that they don’t filter most of the things in their lives. They speak of what they observe around them, often times without a point of reference or tainted beliefs. If we would only listen to them more often, we might learn something ourselves.

    Tolerance, understanding, acceptance are opposite desires to racism, insensitive language and the like. Maybe if we could eliminate both sides of that coin and just “be”, now that would a wonderful thing.

    A side note: The words themselves, whether meant to be hurtful or not, are simply just words (the same in books). It is the individual perception and reaction that causes the hurt feelings. If I allow someone’s words to hurt my feelings, I have given away my power to them through a simple statement. Words are hurtful, only if we allow them to be so. Take away that power and you take away the users power as well.

    1. Yes, it would be a wonderful thing if we could just “be.” Children don’t filter the way adults do, and I have noticed that my four-year-old children notice skin color (and hair color, eye color, etc.) in a natural, innocent way as they try to make sense of the world. Right now, they notice difference without judging it. Still, I would prefer that they notice differences that aren’t only skin deep and so I steer them away from over-emphasizing skin color. Bannerman’s book wouldn’t help me do that.

    1. Thanks, Donna. It’s important that children are exposed to controversial ideas in books, but I think it has to be at the right time in their development, when they are able to engage in a meaningful discussion. I hope you’re feeling better! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Leaving racist terms in the great abolitionist classics is one thing, but complaining about omitting needlessly offensive epithets that likely wouldn’t have been written in story if the author lived today is like bemoaning how there’s very little on-screen smoking in movies today. Like the smoking in movies before the nationwide tobacco settlement in 1998 (which ended brand placement), the racial epithets aren’t there to convey any artistic meaning, they’re an artifact of something else.

    Tobacco use is widespread in movies before 1998 because tobacco companies paid for it, not because all the screenwriters thought it said anything about the characters; racist depictions are present in children’s stories from before the civil rights movement because prejudices were commonplace then, not because it was essential to the story that a child’s parents be named “Mumbo” and “Jumbo” and little “Sambo” be drawn as black as coal.

    1. I agree with you. The racially insensitive language in Bannerman’s book is unnecessary. It would be the same story even if the child was named Sam and had green skin. It’s hard for me to believe that people found the original story so charming, particularly with its original exaggerated illustrations, when its racial insensitivity is so obvious. To me, there is nothing charming about it.

  3. I think it’s important to keep these books around so we can teach our future generations why they existed and why it’s so important to make sure the idea of hating someone based on skin color continues to go extinct. But I think you hit on the point everyone forgets, that it’s ultimately the parents’ responsibility the children understand why you wouldn’t want to use such words or why such ideas society views as wrong now when they didn’t then. Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it, right?

    I get really irritated with people trying to shut down or bury things related to free speech that they don’t like. There’s a huge difference between choosing not to read a book because you don’t like it and trying to pass laws that get rid of those kinds of books altogether. I think this applies to every medium, especially the internet. Whether it’s a type of person like Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, or Bill O’Reilly, the person has every right to express their opinion whether or not we agree with it. We can simply choose not to read the blog, watch the TV show, listen to the radio program, etc. But to pass laws to shut them down… Shameful…

    I’m glad you’re doing these posts. Freedom of speech is so important.

    1. Thanks! While I oppose censorship under most circumstances, I accept that there are some messages that are too controversial for my very young children to understand. I wouldn’t prohibit them from reading the original Bannerman book in later adolescence, when they are old enough to have a meaningful discussion with me about the racially insensitive context in which Bannerman wrote the story. At four, they wouldn’t understand.

      1. I think parents have the right to censor things and should censor many things until they are old enough to understand. But parents only, not bureaucrats. Too many bureaucrats try to act like they are our parents these days…

        1. I agree. What I’m still muddling through is how I would feel if a school board decided to add a book like the original version of Little Black Sambo to the kindergarten curriculum or how I would feel about a parent who challenges it (and while courts have allowed Huck Finn to survive challenges, I’m not sure how a court would feel about a controversial book in the curriculum of a much younger grade). If a school assigns it to young children, hopefully with a pedagogical reason (such as to introduce a discussion about race/objectification), then should they give advanced notice to parents and permit them to pull their children out of school that day?

          1. Yes, because ultimately those choices belong to the parents. You are a taxpayer, you’re paying for them to be educating your child, you should have a say as to what goes on there. If most of the parents are against it, there’s no reason if you are for it you can’t read the book with your child and discuss it. If most of the parents are for it, there’s no reason you can’t pull your child out and explain why you want them to wait to read it. Leave the choice up to the parents ultimately.

  4. A difficult area very well elucidated. You’ve drawn the distinction between reading certain original works for nostalgia’s sake whilst not offering them to today’s children – different times, different attitudes.
    I don’t think that the Enid Blytons of the day did more than reflect pre-existing racist/sexist attitudes though. My parents were used to signs on Birmingham (England) lodging houses stating ‘No blacks, dogs or Irish’ but would never have blamed children’s books for the ignorance of the times.

    1. Yeah, I think these children’s books reflect the prejudice of their time. My concern is not that they will cause today’s children to be racist, but that they will encourage children to think too much about skin color, use racially insensitive language unintentionally, and ultimately hurt other people’s feelings.

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