The BUZZ | Victorian Studies | Imperial Innocence: The Kawaii Afterlife of Little Black Sambo

By Erica Kanesaka Kalnay

Kalnay, Erica Kanesaka. “Imperial Innocence: The Kawaii Afterlife of Little Black Sambo.” Victorian Studies, vol. 62, no. 4, 2020, pp. 565–89.

This article explores the afterlife of the Scottish author Helen Bannerman’s 1899 children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo in Japanese kawaii, or “cute,” culture. I arrived at this topic as a multiracial Japanese American whose mother grew up reading Little Black Sambo following the American occupation of Japan. From hearing her speak nostalgically about the book, I began to wonder why this particular story, often described in Japan as “kawaii,” came to assume so much affective power during her childhood. Now widely criticized for being racist, Little Black Sambo is the whimsical tale of a “little black boy” and his adventures with tigers on a walk through the jungle. In postwar Japan, this story became a runaway bestseller, sparking the rise of blackface imagery in kawaii culture. However, in investigating the reasons behind the book’s popularity, I quickly ran up against the limits of a nation-based framework. I discovered that Little Black Sambo’s afterlife in kawaii could not be isolated from the intersecting histories of the British, American, and Japanese empires.

By placing Little Black Sambo in a transnational context, this article brings together scholarship from across Japan studies, Victorian studies, and American studies. I focus most closely, however, on the conceptual affordances of cute studies for charting what Lisa Lowe calls “the intimacies of four continents,” or the ways in which forgotten histories of racial capitalism and domination stitch together Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In alignment with Lowe’s assertion that the intimate situates “scenes of close connection in relation to a global geography,” the kawaii aesthetic is deeply bound up in geopolitics: Japan’s culture of cuteness blossomed in the wake of World War II, as the nation contended with the deflation of its imperial ambitions and subjugation to U.S. military power (18). Through its embrace of Western children’s culture, Japan could metaphorically “embrace” defeat, assuming a passive, childlike role in relation to American hegemony. In my analysis of Little Black Sambo, I track the racial affects that flow through kawaii’s history to show how the traumas of global white supremacy stick to texts and objects that may on the surface seem trivial or even pleasurable.

To do this, I trace the development of kawaii blackface back to Little Black Sambo’s origins in colonial India. Written for the purpose of amusing Bannerman’s own two children on a train ride from Kodai to Madras, Little Black Sambo mixes ethnic signifiers from India and Africa to produce what Sanjay Sircar describes as a “stylized blackness” (188). Not long after the book was published, Anglophone critics began using this stylized blackness to defend the imagined innocence of the story. For example, an 1899 review in The Spectator asserts, “Little Black Sambo makes his simple and direct appeal in the great realm of make-believe without paying the slightest attention to the unities or caring in the least about anything but the amusement of the little boys and girls for whom he was so obviously created” (“Modern Nursery-Books” 842). Almost a century later, a nearly identical argument would be made in Japan, when Sanrio, a company best known for creating Hello Kitty, attempted to defend a line of Sambo merchandise it sold in the late 1980s. In an interview with the American press, a Sanrio representative states, “Everyone thought [the Sambo goods] were cute. We didn’t think they were discriminatory” (Graven 20).

“Imperial innocence” thus extends Robin Bernstein’s theory of “racial innocence.” Drawing from Bernstein, I show how imperial children’s culture performs racial forgetting by projecting race into “the great realm of make-believe.” This deterritorialization of racial forms has not only permitted stories like Little Black Sambo to spread across the globe, but also enabled them to deflect accusations of racism based on the premise that race is meaningless in a fantasy world. My concept of “imperial innocence” marks how these floating racial imaginaries must be understood as products of empire. Children’s books like Little Black Sambo enact the imperialist impulse toward endless expansion and deny the impact of racial violence by scattering it across the broad terrain of the everyday. I argue that these texts therefore demand a transnational hermeneutic in order to address their resistance to critical dismantling through the challenge of contextualization.

Although American imperialism assumes an intermediary role vis-à-vis British and Japanese imperialisms in this article, I show how American blackface proved especially critical to Sambo’s consolidation into a racial trope capable of assuming a wide range of meanings. This capaciousness resulted in part from “the fungibility of the captive body,” to borrow Saidiya V. Hartman’s term for theorizing the affective economies undergirding plantation minstrel performances. As Hartman writes, these “innocent amusements” exploited “the vulnerability of the captive body as a vessel for the uses, thoughts, and feelings of others” (19). When subsequent American editions of Little Black Sambo layered American blackface imagery on top of Bannerman’s original text, including the 1927 edition illustrated by Frank Dobias that later became the classic edition in Japan, “the fungibility of the captive body” allowed three overlapping empires to claim Little Black Sambo as a flexible signifier of racial forgetting.

Of course, Little Black Sambo alone cannot provide a complete picture of how “imperial innocence” has operated in distinct times and places. In some of my other work, I more closely examine how children’s culture has afforded the occlusion of American empire, and I explore the significance of this occlusion for Asian American racialization and politics. As Victor Bascara asserts in his work on the model minority myth’s containment of the memory of empire, “Whenever empire is invoked to describe American activities around the world, American culture responds with denial, shock, disappointment, and a studied innocence” (27). Since childhood uniquely illuminates the mechanisms of this “studied innocence,” critical childhood studies has much to offer the project of exposing neglected imperial histories. Just as the ideologies of childhood innocence have facilitated the erasure of racial traumas, we might further consider how these dynamics extend far beyond national borders, inflicting and eliding racial violence in places imagined as far, far away.

Works Cited

Bascara, Victor. Model-Minority Imperialism. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York University Press, 2011.

Graven, Kathryn and Urban C. Lehner. “Japanese Firm That Specializes in Cute Stumbles With Black Sambo Caricatures.” Wall Street Journal, 31 Aug. 1988, p. 20.

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Duke University Press, 2015.

“Modern Nursery-Books.” The Spectator, 2 Dec. 1899, pp. 841–42.

Sircar, Sanjay. “The International Case of Little Colourless Babaji: Reracinating, Returning and Retaining a Classic.” Signal: Approaches to Children’s Books, vol. 90, 1999, pp. 187–211.

Erica Kanesaka Kalnay is a Ph.D. Candidate in English Literary Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her work has received awards from the Association for Asian American Studies, the North American Victorian Studies Association, and the Northeast Victorian Studies Association. Articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Journal of Asian American Studies, Oxford Literary Review, positions: asia critique, and Victorian Studies.


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