Saving Sambo: Targeting racism and reclaiming an icon


Shelves filled with her colorfully painted ceramics line the walls and a well-worn sofa beckons, while the artist herself, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, greets studio visitors with a warm smile. Rose Hill's basement studio in the McGuffey Art Center is a study in comfort. Her work, however, makes many people decidedly uncomfortable. And on February 3, some say, she'll be opening more than just her very first gallery show, "Black February."

"She's opening up a whole can of worms," says UVA anthropology professor George Mentore, alleging that Hill's work has "dangerous" implications.

Hill's ceramics– vases, tiles, plates, and mirrors– feature black figures with white circled eyes and mouths, including the controversial character "Little Black Sambo," the eponymous– and some might say infamous– protagonist of the 1898 children's story.

Written and illustrated in colonial India by Helen Bannerman for her two daughters, the book was originally published in England and soon after achieved wild popularity in America. But while Bannerman's original drawings were undeniably offensive caricatures of the native children she observed abroad, in later American editions, the illustrations became increasingly vicious and reflected the racism endemic in America at that time– and well beyond.

Hill, however, says that at its root, the original Little Black Sambo is a "wonderful" story that actually presents a black child as a hero. She says that despite its racist images, purging library and school shelves of all versions of the book has been a mistake.

"In my opinion," she says, "we threw the baby out with the bathwater."

The "baby" in this case is the story of a little boy who goes out hiking in the jungle. After a series of tigers rob the boy of his clothes (even his purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings), the resourceful lad comes up with a plan. By the time it's over, there are pancakes galore for the hungry boy and his parents.

In 1996, two sanitized versions of the story– The Story of Little Babaji and Sam and the Tigers– were released, but ridding the book of its original hero, Hill says, devalued the story. "They took the black away," she explains.

That removal may inadvertently have propelled Hill– who enjoyed the original book as a child in the 1950s– toward her mission.

Hill stumbled across her artistic interest– and talent– a decade ago when she and her younger sister, Maxine Jones– a member of the female R&B recording group En Vogue– started an ethnic hair care line in California.

Hill, for 20 years a fragrance buyer for duty-free stores, had long collected retro African American artifacts– old ads, labels, and books– and, inspired by her collection, began sketching designs for her own label. She soon found herself hooked on painting the nostalgic images, and in 1999, when she and her sister opened a bath and body shop in the San Francisco Bay area, a reporter wrote about some of the pieces Hill sold in her store.

It wasn't long before Hill enjoyed the sort of celebrity of which most authors and artists can only dream.

Gayle King, well known as Oprah Winfrey's best friend, commissioned Hill to do a set of plates for Winfrey, who in November 1999 featured Hill and her work on the show.

That's when things got a little crazy, Hill recalls.

"I had five million visitors to my website," she laughs.

Flooded with orders from across the country, Hill says, she became physically ill from the stress and stopped production, unwilling to assign the creation of such controversial images to a factory. (Her tiles featuring little black girls with ribbons in their hair remain on Oprah's website.)

In 2004, Hill, who'd continued creating her art on a smaller scale, moved to Charlottesville, where her sister had already relocated to raise a family.

She says she's well aware that the images she paints can be painful reminders of oppression and abuse, but insists that's not a good reason to hide the book– or the images– away.

"It's part of our culture," Hill says, "and we should embrace it. I'm not down with cutting out the parts that are uncomfortable."

Mentore, however, calls that attitude "naïve," and says Hill may not understand the "dangerous" implications of her work.

"There's no doubt she's going to stir up a hornet's nest," he says.

Some African Americans, however, see possibility for healing where Mentore does not.

"In terms of literary and cultural study, there's a tradition of black women artists trying to reclaim things that could be considered racist," says Lisa Woolfork, an assistant professor of English at UVA.

Woolfork cites controversial African American artist Kara Walker as the primary example, and also mentions Randall Kennedy's book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, which ignited a firestorm of controversy upon its 2003 publication.

"It's a commendable strategy to seize the reins of interpretation," says Woolfork, "to put racists on notice that they don't get to control the terms of conversation or inquiry or debate."

However, Woolfork cautions, Mentore is right to be wary.

"I think I would concur," she says, "that this might be a genie out of the bottle. Once you open this door, it becomes really difficult to close it or to censor who can walk through and who cannot."

And indeed, that's a question that comes up in Hill's studio. Hill readily agrees that hers is art that can only be created by a black person.

"African Americans," she says, "will never trust whites to do this imagery."

But who can buy such art? Can whites enjoy Hill's imagery, even buy it, without crossing a line or perpetuating racism?

When the question is posed, an answer comes from a woman standing nearby.

"Absolutely," says Sarah Thornley, a tall blond who has been admiring Hill's tiles on a nearby shelf. She says she has purchased several of Hill's pieces since she first met Hill in California, and hopes to buy more.

"I grew up in the South," says Thornley, who recalls hearing Little Black Sambo read to her by her father and her grandmother, both of whom, she says ruefully, were racist.

Hill's art "gives you the nostalgic effect without the bitter effect," she says. "For her to do this art tells me it's okay, that I don't have to feel guilty" for enjoying the story as a child. Thornley says Hill "presents it in a loving way."

But the notion of whites purchasing such art for any reason is part of what can make imagery like Hill's "so painful and complex," says Woolfork.

"Art is a living thing; it has implications that exist outside the artist's intention," says Woolfork. "What would it mean for a white person or a black person or an Asian person to have these representations?" These are questions that need to be considered, she says.

Alicia Lugo, a retired African American history teacher who taught in Charlottesville's schools during and after segregation, sees no problem with Hill's choice of Little Black Sambo as a subject.

"An artist has a right to depict whatever they choose to use as their subject," says Lugo. "If she wants to portray him in an affectionate and loving manner, it is certainly her right to do that."

Lugo points out that some people might also take offense at Munch's "The Scream" and other art inspired by the Holocaust.

Lugo takes a different view of that as well.

"I don't take offense at a depiction of what was real," she says, "and what was real was Mammy and Little Black Sambo. I certainly recognize their place in history."

Hill's February art exhibition is another chapter in that history, one that's sure to provoke debate. But that, says Woolfork, is not necessarily a bad thing.

"It's kind of like playing with fire," she says, "but that's the only way you get heat."

Hill says she's ready to take the heat if and when it comes her way.

"When people get so bent out of shape," she says, "it's not so much about me; it's about them and their baggage."

Rose Hill

Rose Hill

Hill's rendering of Little Black Sambo

Hill's ceramic tiles were a hit on Oprah's show in 1999.