“Shared History”, Little Black Sambo, and the Problem with Historical Importance

So, yesterday I was reading this article and it reminded me of a conversation I’d had recently about the picture book Little Black Sambo.  LBS is well-known for being the Most Racist Picture Book Ever.  Not that it really is/was the Most Racist Picture Book Ever (there were much worse published) but that it was the Most Beloved Racist Picture Book Ever And Took Forever To Get Removed From Libraries and so it holds a special place in the consciousness of kidlit folks.

Anyway, the conversation went like this:

Random Person: I think we should have Little Black Sambo in print, you know, for Discussion and Knowledge.
Me: …
Random Person: you know, so people understand our Shared History and Racism.
Me: *walks away*

This, friends, is not a conversation one can have without it devolving into a screaming match about the cycle of oppression and censorship and whatnot, so I did what any brilliant black woman would do.

I walked away while praying to Jesus* to give me strength.

Here’s the thing about the term Shared History: as soon as white people say it you know some straight bullshit is about to follow.

The term “Shared History” implies that both parties participated in it equally.  It sounds really nice, like we all sat down together and had a television special Thanksgiving dinner: pumpkin pie and a turkey and Grandma Mabel’s stories about going to Woolworth’s for penny candy all set against a Leave It to Beaver background.

But there is a huge difference between a history of a concentrated campaign of violence and oppression and disenfranchisement and being on the receiving end of that violence. It’s akin to a mugger turning to his victim in the court room and saying “I think we really shared a moment back there in the alley, you and me. Right before I brained you with the pipe.”

There is no “Shared History”. There is only History: mine erased, yours whitewashed.

This is why any statements about the necessity of violent images to interpret history is complete and utter bullshit. Because it shows you’re ignoring how that history differed before the conversation has even gotten started. It’s a statement that privileges white knowledge over the pain of black folks (and every other marginalized group, the underdogs of history).  It’s a statement that clearly demonstrates that you STILL don’t give a shit about us, just some ephemeral idea of being a Good Person.

Most importantly, it shows that you aren’t paying attention.  Because all of that problematic imagery you want to preserve for Science! And History! And Knowledge! It’s still with us right here, right now.  It’s still making its way into picture books, and people are still defending it.  If you want to learn about racism and injustice all you have to do is take a walk outside, yo.

So yeah, miss me with that "Shared History" and your Little Black Sambo discussions.

I’m good.



*I am not a Christian, and I feel like I pray to Jesus for strength a lot and maybe I’m wearing out my welcome so if you could recommend another deity I’d be much obliged