Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only ask one time of year, but when we do, we mean it. Without your support we can’t continue to bring you the very best material, day-in and day-out. CounterPunch is one of the last common spaces on the Internet. Help make sure it stays that way.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Tintin and Racism

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Friday, February 10, a court in Belgium rejected “an application to ban a colonial-era” children’s book, Tintin in the Congo, by Georges Remi, known as Hergé to his millions of readers (and recent movie viewers) around the world.  The children’s cartoon/narrative was originally serialized in 1931-31, revised and reissued by the author/illustrator in 1946, and subsequently published in English in 1991.  The current legal case was initiated by Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo, a Brussels-based Congolese man.

Although the judgment of the court stated, “It is clear that neither the story, nor the fact that [the book] has been put on sale, has a goal to…create an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment,” that decision does not exonerate Hergé of racism.  No matter what the court has said, Tintin in the Congo reinforces Western racist stereotypes—sadly, for the very audience for which the book was intended: children.  Worse, other narratives by the writer/illustrator (including Tintin in America, which depicts Indians in a similarly negative and stereotyped way) project prevalent racist stereotypes.

It is not the story of Tintin in the Congo that is offensive.  The book is little more that a typical Tintin adventure sequence with villains and rogues, misadventures, surprises and cliff-hangers.  The problem is the background, using Congo as a backdrop for Tintin’s latest escapades.  Just as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) used Congo as the setting for colonial greed and Kurtz’s madness, Hergé’s illustrations are akin to Conrad’s descriptions, especially the drawings of African characters that have almost no personalities of their own or variety to distinguish them from one another.

Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, describes the Africans as having “faces like grotesque masks,” as animal-like creatures who lap water like animals, with ugly and horrid faces, who howl and leap around, with buttocks wagging “to and fro like tails.”  Of one “savage” who has been trained to fire up a boiler, Marlow can’t resist remarking, “To look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs.”  It is the animalistic images assigned to Africans that make Conrad—according to Chinua Achebe, his harshest critic—racist.  I concur.  He didn’t need to have Marlow use such racist terms.  And as Achebe has painstakingly documented, it is not excusable simply to respond that Conrad’s treatment of Africans in Heart of Darkness was no different than the treatment by other writers of the time, because there were enlightened artists who did not embrace racist images and stereotypes.

This is where I also fault Hergé in Tintin in the Congo.  Tintin is the pure Aryan boy, followed around by his pure white dog, Snowball.  Tintin’s African pal, Coco, is drawn so that his head is black as ink, except for his white bug-eyes, his typically gaping mouth with huge, red lips, and his frizzy black hair, though he is spared the flat nose of most of his elders.  The African adults are depicted either as stupid clowns or as duplicitous tricksters, draped in leopard skins and gaudy loincloths, and carrying shields and spears.  A monkey that appears briefly in the story is accorded as much intelligence as the Africans.  The analogy is impossible to miss.  Above all, the African characters are ignorant savages easily influenced by Tintin, who, after all, is only a young European boy. Taken all together, the illustrations of Africans are offensive, stereotypical, and racist.

The publishers of the English edition of the story have attempted to downplay the racist overtones of the book by adding a wrap-around attachment to the book which states, “In his portrayal of the Belgian Congo, the young Hergé reflects the colonial attitudes of the time…he depicted the African people according to the bourgeois, paternalist stereotypes of the period….”  The fact that the British publisher (Egmont) decided that it was necessary to attach the statement is an admission of culpability.  Similarly in 2007, Britain’s Commission for Racial Equality declared the book “hideous racial prejudice,” recommending that it should no longer be sold in British bookstores.  The brouhaha was significant enough that some booksellers in the United Kingdom stopped selling the book, although Borders simply decided to relocate Tintin in the Congo to its adult graphic novel section.

The Belgium court’s decision that Tintin in the Congo does not breach the country’s racism laws is only half of the picture.  Nor is Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo’s attempt to have the book banned in Belgium an appropriate goal.  Banning Tintin in the Congo would serve no more purpose than would censoring Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or any number of other classic works that reflect the prejudices of their times.  It is worth nothing that late in his life, Twain entered the dialogue about Congo (especially the atrocities), by publishing his own expose of Belgium’s colonial horrors: King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905).  Some critics have regarded the book as Twain’s attempt to respond to the controversies of his own writing career.

Georges Remi (Hergé) died in 1983. The controversies of his books will have to be left for others to explain—not to censor—to use as springboards for discussing (especially with children) the lingering and on-going issues of racism.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
David Swanson
Turn the Pentagon into a Hospital
Ralph Nader
Are You Ready for Democracy?
Chris Martenson
Hell to Pay
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Debate Night: Undecided is Everything, Advantage Trump
Frank X Murphy
Power & Struggle: the Detroit Literacy Case
Chris Knight
The Tom and Noam Show: a Review of Tom Wolfe’s “The Kingdom of Speech”
Weekend Edition
September 23, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
The Meaning of the Trump Surge
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: More Pricks Than Kicks
Mike Whitney
Oh, Say Can You See the Carnage? Why Stand for a Country That Can Gun You Down in Cold Blood?
Chris Welzenbach
The Diminution of Chris Hayes
Vincent Emanuele
The Riots Will Continue
Rob Urie
A Scam Too Far
Pepe Escobar
Les Deplorables
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes, Obfuscation and Propaganda in Syria
Timothy Braatz
The Quarterback and the Propaganda
Sheldon Richman
Obama Rewards Israel’s Bad Behavior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail