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One way we were programmed

Sometimes I participate in a sort of email round robin discussion group with my brother and friends and recently we were discussing what happened to the Sambo’s restaurant chain and that led to a discussion of the story, “Little Black Sambo.”

As it happened, around the same time I was in a store and noticed a rack of Little Golden Books. I hadn’t known they were still being published. There are still some of the same titles as half a century ago.

Then, also around the same time I bought a copy of a book, “Everything I Need To Know I Learned From a Little Golden Book,” a sort of compilation of art from real Golden Books.

I’m not a big believer in the notion that pop culture is a big influence on society. I tend to think, for example, that violent government policies, like launching unnecessary wars, has a heck of a lot more impact on society than, say, imaginary violence in movies or video games.

At the same time, that’s not to say that pop culture has NO impact. I remember about a quarter century ago accompanying a friend to Toys ’R’ Us and her pointing out to me the rows of boys’and girls’ clothes. The boys’ row was full of strong, bold colors, the girls’ row had lots of mild, pastel colors. It was hard not to wonder what message was being sent to children there.

At the time of the convergence of the three events I mentioned, I got to wondering about a couple of children’s stories that appeared in Little Golden Books.

When I found that rack, one of the titles that jumped out at me was “Doctor Dan the Bandage Man.” This book, introduced in 1950, became successful because of an interesting cross-promotion with Johnson and Johnson.

Inside the book there were actual Band Aids attached to the title page. “Doctor Dan” is a tale of a small boy named Dan who hurts his finger while playing. It sold so well that in 1953 the publisher introduced a version for girls. But this one did not feature a little female doctor. It was titled “Nurse Nancy.”

This book also included actual bandages tucked inside, but the cover art seemed to show a little nurse assisting a small doctor (he was using a stethoscope) instead of her acting on her own, as in the case of the “Doctor Dan” cover art. An ad in the March 30, 1953, Life magazine read, “‘Nurse Nancy’ is a companion to ‘Doctor Dan’…” It’s hard to miss what was being telegraphed into small minds about their relative roles. But the limits of pop culture can be shown by the fact that it was the generation that read those books that created the women’s liberation movement.

In those years, Little Golden Books also published a version of the old story “Little Black Sambo.” Written by Helen Bannerman in 1899, it was first published by London’s Dumpy Books for Children.

In the story, a little boy in India named Sambo is pursued by hungry and narcissistic tigers. He gives them his clothes, shoes and umbrella and they preen in these items, then compete for them. The angry tigers run around a tree after each other until they turn into butter which Sambo takes home to his family. His mother serves it on pancakes.

The story itself is not a problem. Sambo outmaneuvers the tigers and helps his family. He’s quite a person. But racists began using little Sambo’s name as a denigrating term in describing African Americans. (Perhaps the boy’s cleverness was one of the reasons racists took aim at him, undercutting him as a role model).

It was the word, not the story, that was a problem. In addition, some editions of the story had illustrations that portrayed Sambo in insulting, stereotypical ways. The very word “Sambo” grated on the sensibilities of anyone who had any sensitivity at all. So the story mostly passed from the scene, along with the restaurant chain that bore the same name.

When I found the rack of Golden Books, I noticed a title, “The Boy and the Tigers.” It is the story of Sambo under a new 2004 title, with a new name for Sambo – Little Rajani.

As comedians from Lenny Bruce to George Carlin have pointed out, there are no bad words. It is the meanings they are given that make them a problem. If Ms. Bannerman’s original story had featured a boy named Rajani, THAT is the name that today would grate on our ears and Sambo would be just another innocuous name.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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