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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.