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
January 24, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
A Letter From Iowa
Jim Kavanagh
Aftermath: The Iran War After the Soleimani Assassination
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Camp by the Lake
Chuck Churchill
The Long History of Elite Rule: What Will It Take To End It?
Robert Hunziker
A Climate Time Bomb With Trump’s Name Inscribed
Andrew Levine
Trump: The King
Jess Franklin
Globalizing the War on Indigenous People: Bolsonaro and Modi
James Graham
From Paris, With Tear Gas…
Rob Urie
Why the Primaries Matter
Dan Bacher
Will the Extinction of Delta Smelt Be Governor Gavin Newsom’s Environmental Legacy?
Ramzy Baroud
In the Name of “Israel’s Security”: Retreating US Gives Israel Billions More in Military Funding
Vijay Prashad
What the Right Wing in Latin America Means by Democracy Is Violence
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Biden’s Shameful Foreign Policy Record Extends Well Beyond Iraq
Louis Proyect
Isabel dos Santos and Africa’s Lumpen-Bourgeoisie
Nick Pemberton
AK-46: The Case Against Amy Klobuchar
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Promtheus’ Fire: Climate Change in the Time of Willful Ignorance
Linn Washington Jr.
Waiting for Justice in New Jersey
Ralph Nader
Pelosi’s Choice: Enough for Trump’s Impeachment but not going All Out for Removal
Mike Garrity – Jason Christensen
Don’t Kill 72 Grizzly Bears So Cattle Can Graze on Public Lands
Joseph Natoli
Who’s Speaking?
Kavaljit Singh
The US-China Trade Deal is Mostly Symbolic
Cesar Chelala
The Coronavirus Serious Public Health Threat in China
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Must Remain Vigilant and on Guard Against US Hybrid Warfare
Robert Fantina
Impeachment as a Distraction
Courtney Bourgoin
What We Lose When We Lose Wildlife
Mark Ashwill
Why Constructive Criticism of the US is Not Anti-American
Daniel Warner
Charlie Chaplin and Truly Modern Times
Manuel Perez-Rocha
How NAFTA 2.0 Boosts Fossil Fuel Polluters, Particularly in Mexico
Dean Baker
What Minimum Wage Would Be If It Kept Pace With Productivity
Mel Gurtov
India’s Failed Democracy
Thomas Knapp
US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Free Speech?
Winslow Myers
Turning Point: The new documentary “Coup 53”
Jeff Mackler
U.S. vs. Iran: Which Side are You On?
Sam Pizzigati
Braggadocio in the White House, Carcinogens in Our Neighborhoods
Christopher Brauchli
The Company Trump Keeps
Julian Vigo
Why Student Debt is a Human Rights Issue
Ramzy Baroud
These Chains Will Be Broken
Chris Wright
A Modest Proposal for Socialist Revolution
Thomas Barker
The Slow Death of European Social Democracy: How Corbynism Bucked the Trend
Nicky Reid
It’s Time to Bring the War Home Again
Michelle Valadez
Amy Klobuchar isn’t Green
David Swanson
CNN Poll: Sanders Is The Most Electable
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Our Dire Need for “Creative Extremists”—MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Jill Richardson
‘Little Women’ and the American Attitude Toward Poverty
David Yearsley
Watching Star Wars in Berlin
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail