April 4, 2013 10:21:26 AM
During Wednesday's Table Talk program at the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library, four well-known local officials led a discussion on the subject, "My Favorite Childhood Book is...."
Lowndes County supervisors Harry Sanders and Leroy Brooks, along with Columbus Mayor Robert Smith and Chancery Clerk Lisa Younger Neese, spoke briefly about their favorite books, but it was the discussion that followed that proved most interesting.
A lady wanted to know why it is that the old children's book "Little Black Sambo" is considered a racist book. The question appeared to be directed to Smith and Brooks, who are black.
I winced at the question, I must admit, because the racist elements of the book seemed obvious to me. I remember the book from my childhood and the depictions of the main characters, all black, as the sorts of caricatures that were routinely used to degrade blacks. The name "Sambo" is highly offensive, too.
But it was the innocent sincerity of the lady's question and the measured responses from Smith and Brooks that somehow elevated the discussion from what I feared would be a hurtful dispute into an honest, insightful dialogue about race relations and how they have evolved. It was clear that the lady had made an honest inquiry; there was nothing in her tone or language to suggest it was the sort of baiting question that often masquerades as a means of promoting the questioner's opinion.
By happenstance, Sanders' favorite book was "Uncle Remus." Sanders said as a young boy, he remembered when his grandfather, who was blind, would come to stay with his family every summer. At that time, there was a radio show based on the "Uncle Remus" stories that he and his grandfather listened to together.
That proved to be a theme for most of the people who talked about their favorite childhood books: It wasn't necessarily the books that stood out but the associations they represented, the happy memories of childhood the books evoked.
Somewhere along the way -- perhaps instinctively, perhaps through experience -- I had come to realize that "Uncle Remus" and "Little Black Sambo" struck a painful chord among blacks. Wednesday's discussion prompted me to think about why that would be, and why men and women of goodwill might consider those books from different perspectives, primarily based on their race or, perhaps more importantly, their personal association with the stories.
In both books, the central characters are black. In "Uncle Remus," the narrator, Uncle Remus, is a slave (the tales are set in the pre-Civil War South). All of the human characters in "Little Black Sambo" are black, reasonable since the story is set in Africa.
As Wednesday's discussion developed there was an interesting difference in perspective that emerged.
Sanders, while acknowledging that some blacks were offended by "Uncle Remus," said he didn't understand that reaction, pointing out that Uncle Remus is "a very wise man." Sanders said the tales, while entertaining, also revealed great truths that reflected the narrator's profound wisdom. In that sense, the main black character in the story has attributes to be admired.
Similarly, Little Black Sambo is portrayed as a bright, resourceful child who is able to outwit a group of tigers who are trying to make a meal of him. Ultimately, it is the tigers who turn out to be on the menu of Sambo's family, thanks to Sambo's ingenuity. Again, the character is imbued with qualities to be admired.
Why, then, should there be cause for offense?
To understand that, another perspective is necessary. In fact, it is vital to any real progress in black-white relations, I am convinced.
To men such as Brooks and Smith, who grew up in the Civil Rights era, it is the associations they have with books like "Little Black Sambo" and "Uncle Remus" that evoke powerful, painful memories rather than the stories themselves.
On one level it is easy to understand why the books are offensive to blacks, particularly "Little Black Sambo." The illustrations present the characters in a degrading manner -- nappy hair, bulging eyes, enormous red lips. "Uncle Remus," on the other hand, speaks in a dialect that strongly depicts the narrator as an uneducated man, even though the messages he presents are full of wisdom.
There is little doubt, however, that Smith and Brooks -- along with probably every black person who grew up in the era -- were often subjected to degrading, racist remarks. Being called "Sambo" is something no black person would be inclined to shrug off.
"It's like a black man being called 'boy,'" Smith explained.
The difficulty, I believe, is that some white people do not understand the connotations that are associated with such books. Whites are not generally stereotyped by such unflattering and offensive caricatures. Our experiences have not informed us of that pain because we have never been subjected to it.
It was truly an interesting discussion and my estimation of both Brooks and Smith grew as a result of their thoughtful comments on the subject.
I think the discussion does illustrate that there is still work to be done in race relations. I think we still need to work on seeing such subjects through perspectives other than our own. In every case, our personal perspective is a limited one and so we often fail to arrive at a full and fair assessment.
But I left Wednesday's meeting hopeful.
I think it is a good thing that we can ask, honestly, "What is offensive about 'Little Black Sambo'?" and really listen to the answers that emerge.
After all, you can never have an answer until you ask the question.
That is precisely what happened Wednesday.
And we are all the better for it, I am certain.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.