FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Tintin and Racism

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. 

 

 

More articles by:

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

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
December 13, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Melvin Goodman
The FBI: Another Worry in the National Security State
Rob Urie
Establishment Politics are for the Rich
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: That’s Neoliberalism for You
Paul Street
Midnight Ramble: A Fascist Rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania
Joan Roelofs
The Science of Lethality
Joyce Nelson
Buttigieg and McKinsey
Joseph Natoli
Equally Determined: To Impeach/To Support
Charles Pierson
The National Defense Authorization Act Perpetuates the Destruction of Yemen
REZA FIYOUZAT
An Outrageous Proposal: Peace Boats to Iran
Lee Hall
Donald Trump Jr., Mongolian Sheep Killer
Andrew Levine
A Plague on Both Their Houses, Plus a Dozen Poxes on Trump’s
David Rosen
Mortality Rising: Trump and the Death of the “American Dream”
Dave Lindorff
The Perils of Embedded Journalism: ‘Afghan Papers’ Wouldn’t Be Needed If We Had a Real Independent News Media
Brian Cloughley
Human Rights and Humbug in Washington
Stephen Leas
Hungry for a Livable Planet: Why I Went On Hunger Strike and Occupied Pelosi’s Office
Saad Hafiz
Pakistan Must Face Its Past
Lawrence Davidson
Deteriorating Climates: Home and Abroad
Cal Winslow
The End of the Era: Nineteen Nineteen
Louis Proyect
If Time Magazine Celebrates Greta Thunberg, Why Should We?
Thomas Drake
Kafka Down Under: the Threat to Whistleblowers and Press Freedom in Australia
Thomas Knapp
JEDI Mind Tricks: Amazon Versus the Pentagon and Trump
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s War on the Poor
Michael Welton
Seeing the World Without Shadows: the Enlightenment Dream
Ron Jacobs
The Wind That Shook the Barley: the Politics of the IRA
Rivera Sun
Beyond Changing Light Bulbs: 21 Ways You Can Stop the Climate Crisis
Binoy Kampmark
The Bloomberg Factor: Authoritarianism, Money and US Presidential Politics
Nick Pemberton
Ideology Shall Have No Resurrection
Rev. Susan K. Williams Smith
What Trump and the GOP Learned From Obama
Ramzy Baroud
‘Elected by Donors’: the University of Cape Town Fails Palestine, Embraces Israel
Cesar Chelala
Unsuccessful U.S. Policy on Cuba Should End
Harry Blain
The Conservatism of Impeachment
Norman Solomon
Will the Democratic Presidential Nomination Be Bought?
Howard Lisnoff
The One Thing That US Leaders Seem to Do Well is Lie
Jeff Cohen
Warren vs. Buttigieg Clash Offers Contrast with Sanders’ Consistency
Mel Gurtov
The Afghanistan Pentagon Papers
Gaither Stewart
Landslide … to Totalitarianism
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
How Blaming Nader in 2000 Paved the Way for Today’s Neo-Fascism
Steve Early
In Re-Run Election: LA Times Journalist Wins Presidency of NewsGuild 
David Swanson
If You’re Not Busy Plotting Nonviolent Revolution for Peace and Climate, You’re Busy Dying
Nicky Reid
Sorry Lefties, Your Impeachment is Bullshit
John Kendall Hawkins
The Terror Report You Weren’t Meant to See
Susan Block
Krampus Trumpus Rumpus
Martin Billheimer
Knight Crawlers
David Yearsley
Kanye in the West
Elliot Sperber
Dollar Store 
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail