Lecture 3
Rewriting Colonial Texts
© La Trobe University, David Beagley 2006
• All work submitted for assessment requires a
Cover sheet which includes a Statement of
authorship - available on the School of
Education Web Page at
Bader, B. (1996) Sambo, Babaji and Sam. The Horn Book. 72(5)
September/October: 536-547
Martin, M. (1998) “Hey, who’s the kid with the green umbrella?” Reevaluating the Black-a-moor and Little Black Sambo. The Lion
and the Unicorn [online]. 22(2): 147-162. Available: Project
Sircar, Sanjay. (1999) The International Case of Little Colorless
Babaji: Reracinating, Returning and Retaining a Classic. Signal
90: 187-211.
Susina, J. (1999) Reviving or revising Helen Bannerman’s The Story
of Little Black Sambo: Postcolonial hero or signifying monkey? in
Voices of the Other: Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial
Context. (1999) ed. R. McGillis. New York: Garland
The Problem
2 contexts for judgement of the book and the question
of revision:
• Political – the social issues and reactions
“Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899) has the
unenviable reputation as the most racist text in the history of
children’s literature. Both Bannerman’s text and illustrations have
become emblematic of racial stereotyped texts.”
Susina (1999)
• Literary – the authorial perspective and audience
“…a perfect union of words and pictures – with a story that seems timeless,
like unburied treasure, and a highly original format that became the
model of twentieth-century picture books.”
Bader (1996)
The Problem
3 questions to be asked to justify rewriting a
Does it cause offence?
Will rewriting remove the offence?
What should be rewritten?
Does it cause offence?
What elements could be offensive?
Illustrations: black-a-moor, b&w minstrel
Names: Sambo, Mumbo, Jumbo
Clothing: dandified but “childish dress-up”
Colonial relationships: speech, home, dinner
table, pancake recipe
Who might be offended?
People demeaned by such caricatures
• People of negro identity
• People of Indian identity
What’s the offence?
• Classic trickster folk tale – e.g. Brer Rabbit –
with elements still very popular in children’s
• Does it demean the black child, or make him
present in white nurseries?
• Are the inconsistencies poor writing, or
• Is the problem Bannerman’s and the book’s, or
the reader’s?
Will rewriting remove the offence?
The balance of political and literary contexts
• Will changing the offending detail alter the
literary quality?
• Will the change carry its own (maybe
unexpected) political message?
What should be rewritten?
What should be kept?
Literary elements
• Style: language, simplicity and logic of story, humour
• Theme: resourceful hero, triumph over bullies, family
What should be changed?
Political elements
• Caricature: demeaning racial representation in illustrations
• Colonial attitudes: clothing, comparisons
• Sam and the Tigers
• The Story of Little Babaji
Sam and the Tigers
What does it keep?
Setting - non-specific imaginary
place Sam-sam-sa-mara
Characters - child, tigers, mother,
Illustrations - Sam’s racial identity,
clothing and colours
Language - simple, repeated refrain
Story - establishing, sequence of action, resolution
Sam and the Tigers
What does it change?
Setting - essence is southern USA, time early 20th
century (cf. The Colour Purple)
Characters - populated landscape, 5 tigers, Brer Rabbit
Illustrations - realist style, intricate backgrounds,
independent visual narrative
Language - idioms of setting, modern and tangential
references (cf. Shrek)
Story - “excursions” to validate inclusions
The Story of Little Babaji
What does it keep?
Setting - vaguely Indian
Characters - child, tigers, mother,
Illustrations - cartoon-ish, edging
to caricature
Language - rhythms and repetitive,
names in pattern
Story - virtually intact in sequence and detail
The Story of Little Babaji
What does it change?
Setting - exclusively Indian, no fantasy options
Characters - mother and father’s active roles/identities
Illustrations - intricate supporting detail, “Disneyfied”
impression of India, clothing and scenery is Bollywood
Language - names “Indian-ish” but inaccurate
Story - illustrative details to develop modernist distinct
visual narrative
How successful are they?
• Many critics prefer Sam to Babaji for its
development of context and detail into its own world
• Babaji maintains spareness of illustration better, with
its focussing on the simplicity of story and resolution
• Is the story adjusted, or appropriated?
– Could Sam’s placement in a definite (if fanciful) USbased setting be seen as intellectual colonialism?
– Does Babaji’s firm Indian identity merely emphasise its
inherent colonial attitudes?
• Are these versions replacements, alternatives, or