Rooting Out Racism: A Family Affair

As an activist in Toronto, Daniel Braithwaite made sure the book Little Black Sambo was banned in Toronto schools in the 1950s ; his daughter, Jane, continues to spread his social justice legacy in Peterborough area schools.

By Melodie McCullough

jane braithwaite

Jane Braithwaite

Jane Braithwaite is lucky.

By the time she was old enough to start kindergarten in Toronto in 1956, the children’s story book Little Black Sambo  — considered to be racist by the Black community and many others  — had been banned from all public schools in the city.  She did not have to endure the taunts, racial slurs, insults and humiliation that so many other African Canadian children, including her father and older brother, had suffered, prompted by the story.

That’s because her father, Daniel Braithwaite, was responsible for seeing the book banned. Social justice was his passion. He ate, slept and breathed fairness.

Today, as an occasional teacher with the local separate school board in Peterborough, Ontario and area, Jane teaches new generations of children about social justice and carries on her father’s legacy. 

“I saw the impact my dad had on his community,” said Jane, 65, in a recent interview. “He taught me to be proud of who I am and stand up for my rights and the rights of others, to be a voice for others who aren’t able, and to be self-sufficient.”

“As teachers we play a large role in how we can change society’s norms that have not been healthy for people,” she continued.  “Education is the key because it is ignorance that causes that.  It’s a good mesh with social justice.”

Daniel’s Story

Daniel was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia in 1919 to parents who were social activists. His hero was Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader, proponent of Pan-Africanism, and founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Daniel’s family moved to Toronto in 1926, and he became involved in activities of the African Canadian community, such as the Negro Youth Club and church groups.

During the war, Daniel volunteered for the air force but was refused and told “we don’t take coloured”. When he was later called up for the army, he refused, and spent several weeks in military detention.

After the war, he married and he and his wife , June (also an activist whose ancestors came to Canada on the Underground Railroad), had two children, Paul and Jane. Daniel’s community work continued as a member of a group which petitioned the Ontario government to permit African Canadian nurses to be trained and employed in Ontario hospitals. Prior to this, these nurses had to go to the United States to be trained. He worked as a Class A mechanic at Dunlop Tires where he became a union steward and chair of the local’s first Fair Employment Practices and Human Rights Committee. He was also a regular letter-writer to the newspapers.

But it was as a leader in the fight against Little Black Sambo for which he is most remembered. The book was written in 1899 by Helen Bannerman.

“It may be a classic … but it has hurt a lot of people.”

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In The Complicated Racial Politics of Little Black Sambo by Dashini  Jeyathurai, the author explains it wasn’t so much the actual story – considered a classic children’s tale by many — that was offensive. “It was the illustrations accompanying the narrative that had caught attention of American civil rights activists in the 1930s and 1940s. In various editions of the book, Sambo is depicted as having very dark skin juxtaposed against the whites of his eyes and teeth, a broad nose, and a wide smile… (resembling what African-Americans recognized as the)… “pickaninny,” an imagined, subhuman black juvenile who was typically depicted outdoors, merrily accepting (or even inviting) violence … Additionally, the term “Sambo” had already gained currency in America as a black archetype, particularly, a black servant who was ‘loyal and contented’.”

Daniel could easily remember that, as a child, he and other African Canadian children were taunted as a result of the book. In a book he wrote about the banning, he said, “I … vividly remember when a big white boy grabbed hold of my neck and rubbed his hand in my hair, saying, ‘Hello da Sambo’.”

When his son, Paul (now a lawyer), came home from school in 1954, distraught after seeing a film strip of the book and being called ‘Sambo’ by the other students, Daniel had enough.

“He was very upset,” said Jane. “He went up against the Toronto Board of Education. I was young and I’d be up in bed, but I remember the screaming and the yelling and the slamming of the phone.”

“I saw the impact my dad had on his community. He taught me to be proud of who I am …”

The attempt was met with considerable resistance. After almost two years of letter writing by Daniel and his friends, plus petitioning from the Black community, and heated meetings, the book was finally removed from Toronto schools.

In 2001, Daniel was awarded the African Canadian Life-time Achievement Award, a year before he died. It was presented to him on Jane’s 50th birthday. Just months before his passing, too ill to drive, he took a cab to the school where his grand-daughter taught so he could speak to her students for African History month.

Jane’s Story

Once, at a school where Jane was teaching, a young girl called out: “Look, the supply teacher is a n ……r”.  It was one of many opportunities Jane has had over the years to reach out and create change.

“I actually spoke to the school’s students about it. It was a teaching moment,” she said. “As as occasional teacher, I get to move around. I teach a lot of students and it’s good for them to see different people.”

“As a child I never saw myself in books, or anyone looking like me,” she continued. “People don’t realise the impact of not seeing themselves. But now, there is more. It’s really good because children get to see people looking different from them. Then it’s not a big deal when they see them in person.”

Jane, now a mother of two and grand-mother of two with another on the way, worked for most of her younger life as a librarian in various settings. In 1987, she became a teacher, when her daughters were five and eight. She has lived in the Peterborough area for the last five years. Until recently, she was on the executive of the Trillium Lakelands Occasional Teachers’ Local (City of Kawartha Lakes, Muskoka, Haliburton) of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. She is also on the executive of the local Occasional Teachers’ separate school union’s bargaining unit. One of her daughters is also a teacher and a union steward – so the legacy continues.

During Black History Month every February, Jane wears African clothes, takes her African drum and talks about the meaning of the month in every class of the school where she happens to be teaching. She tells them about the advanced, glorious age of Africa – how it had the first university in the world; how and during the Dark Ages in Europe, it had sewage systems; and how so many people of African origin were accomplished scientists and discoverers.

“All this has been hidden. How could you let people know that if you were going to enslave them? So it’s all about education,” she said.

Jane likes to drop off LGBTQ2 materials to school librarians so young people who are struggling can get help, or families can see themselves; she does presentations on Kwanzaa, “and when I talk, you can hear a pin drop. The children want to know”; she makes sure National Aboriginal Day is celebrated; and there’s a simulation game called World History of Racism in Minutes, which she has used with Grade 7 and 8 classes in Fenelon Falls.

Jane believes the times are changing for the better. She also thinks teachers need more training to welcome diversity, rather than fear it.

“It’s planting seeds, because no one is born racist or sexist,” she said.  “It’s all been taught. If we can continue to foster children’s innocence and love of everyone, we can break down the myths and stereotypes.”

Note: Little Black Sambo can be purchased at both amazon.ca and indigo.ca. The following description is from Indigo Book’s website:

“The jolly and exciting tale of the little boy who lost his red coat and his blue trousers and his purple shoes but who was saved from the tigers to eat 169 pancakes for his supper, has been universally loved by generations of children. First written in 1899, the story has become a childhood classic and the authorized American edition with the original drawings by the author has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Little Black Sambo is a book that speaks the common language of all nations, and has added more to the joy of little children than perhaps any other story. They love to hear it again and again; to read it to themselves; to act it out in their play.”

In response to this, Jane Braithwaite simply says: “I was surprised that Little Black Sambo was still for sale. The story obviously has appeal. I just wish they would make the hero look real and give him a real name. It may be a classic…. but it has hurt a lot of people.”

3 replies

  1. The following is not meant to be a critique on my friend Jane Braithwaite’s amazing story, yet this article could be more effective if it discusses racism as a toxicity that affects everyone, not just the people of colour it is directed to. Valiant as the Braithwaite family’s efforts are, racism is a systemic problem, with “Little Black Sambo” being only one of countless insults, microaggressions and outright lies that the dominant white supremacist society has perpetuated. The article could also have pointed out that dismantling racism is not just the problem of the targeted person of colour, it is everyone’s responsibility.

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    • Thank you, Pegi, for the opportunity to explain the principles and styles of JOURNEY Magazine Ptbo to you and other members of the community. Your commentary is similar to other discussions I have, at times, witnessed during my 40 years in journalism. I believe these discussions are due to a misunderstanding of different writing styles — styles which all have their own specific attributes, while none is superior to another.

      I, as editor of JOURNEY Magazine, have chosen to write in the traditional journalism magazine feature style. This format uses interviews of people and their quotes to tell their stories and share their experiences – and invites readers to judge for themselves, rather than being told, explicitly, what they should “take away” from the article.

      This style does not attempt to overtly point out or debate the issues which arise from the story, nor dictate the author’s views. It is not written in the format of an editorial, opinion piece, op-ed or column, which would, indeed, provide the kind of comments, explanations, and personal views you have expected from this article.

      Instead, readers are invited to evaluate, think, decide, and form their own conclusions, based on the subject matter and the facts and information provided. I chose to profile the Braithwaites and share their lived experiences; I chose which anecdotes to share with the reader; I chose which quotes to use; and I chose to let the story speak for itself. There are numerous examples given in the article on which to form an opinion on the topic of racism: the entire description of the Little Black Sambo book; the fact that Daniel Braithwaite was refused by the air force during World War II because “we don’t take coloureds”; the experience of Jane Braithwaite being called the ‘n’ word; the fact Jane’s ancestors travelled to Canada through the Underground Railroad; the fact that African-Canadian nurses had to go to the United States to be trained; the insults directed at black children; the fact that Jane never saw herself portrayed in books when she was growing up; and the fact that the glory of Africa’s early history has been hidden.

      This is not a one-off explanation or excuse in response to your post. This choice of writing style has been purposeful and decisive on my part since JOURNEY Magazine began. Thank you, again, for your input. I invite you and others to continue reading the insightful articles which JOURNEY Magazine offers our community.

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