Tintin, Hergé, and Racism

After being away on vacation for just over a week, I feel like I’ve lost touch with the entire world. After sorting through a pile of unread emails, I noticed that two different people had sent me this item, which details the relocation of Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo from the children’s section to the graphic novel section at the Borders bookstore chain. The motive is the perceived racism of the text, and the fear that parents would be offended to find their children reading a comic that characterizes Africans as idiotic and, essentially, sub-human.

 

tintin-in-the-congo.jpgI don’t think there’s any way to argue against such a move. The book is undoubtedly racist. The natives that Tintin encounters speak in a dim-witted pidgin English and dress in the ridiculous remnants of western clothing. They are foolish and lazy, and are so enamored of their Great White visitor that they make him their king, and eventually elevate him to a sort of godlike status. They are drawn with massive pink circles around their mouths. This is not a depiction of Africans that children should be exposed to. It can only foster racism and prejudice if read at face-value by impressionable children.

 

Furthermore, the book has some rather surprising incidences of violence towards animals. Tintin plays at big game hunter, shooting at everything he sees. In one gag, he kills fifteen antelope, thinking with each shot he fires that he’s taking aim at the same antelope and missing each time. In a scene that has been edited out of subsequent editions, he drills a hole in a rhinoceres’ hide and stuffs a stick of dynamite in. The cruelty he displays towards animals, while not nearly as damaging as the book’s racism, is still quite shocking.

There is an introduction that defends the book as a depiction of “the colonial attitudes of the time”, and warns that “today’s readers may find [it] offensive,” which might just be the understatement of the year. If there is any defence for this book, it’s that an older and wiser Hergé was deeply embarassed by this, one of his earliest efforts. He eventually recognized the racism and violence that pervaded the text, and attempted (largley unsuccessfully, in my mind) to tone down the worst passages. What remained was still offensive enough that The Hergé Foundation held back the colour English translation until 2005.

So for Borders to move the book out of the children’s section is perfectly understandable. For the British Commission for Racial Equality to recommend the title be removed from bookstores goes one step too far. If anything, Tintin in the Congo provides a window into the perceptions of the past, showing how far we have come. To ban it outright would be a horrible abuse, a terrible case of censorship run rampant. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, another children’s book from an earlier era, has also faced consistent criticism for percieved racism, but has never been banned from bookstores. While I would not place Tintin in the Congo on the same level as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I will say that both texts, despite content that might be uncomfortable for modern readers, are not harmful in and of themselves. Despite the racism, despite the violence, Tintin in the Congo – if read in the proper context and with a critical eye – can be an interesting read, although for different reasons than Hergé originally intended.

Still, here’s me betting that Jackson and Spielberg skip this one when they do their multi-million dollar 3D movie adaptations.

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7 Comments

Filed under soap box, tintin

7 responses to “Tintin, Hergé, and Racism

  1. Pingback: Tintin: Insanest of the Insane « ceebeegeebee

  2. i dont get the bluddy cartoon

  3. Amateur6

    Disclaimers: I haven’t read Tintin in the Congo, though I own all the others (including the unfinished “…and Alph-Art”), and I wholeheartedly agree with the decision to move it out of Children’s Books — although I might suggest the inclusion of “…in America” and “The Blue Lotus” for similarly racist content.

    However, I’d like to comment on this: “…speak in a dim-witted pidgin English and dress in the ridiculous remnants of western clothing.” This seems to me to be the most defensible part of the book. Although no doubt exaggerated by extension to EVERYONE that Tintin meets, it must be said that the “civilization” of Africa doubtless produced much of this type of behavior. My point is that it wasn’t necessarily dim-witted or ridiculous at the time. Reading Roald Dahl’s autobiographies, one is struck by similar observations (which are of a similar time period).

    But — great blog. Thanks!

  4. Just wanted to point out that while Huckleberry Finn has been criticized as racist, when it came out it was condemned as being “pro negro”.

    Modern (would-be) censors try to have the book banned based on the surface characteristics: the language and attitudes that were entirely contemporary to the original publication. The deeper message, that southern society at the time was mindless, cruel and ridiculous, seems to get lost in arguments about “the N word.”

  5. Robert

    Amateur6:

    I think that Tintin should be widely published in Asia so every child can read it and learn what white people think about other races. I want it ingrained in their minds and in their hearts that whites routinely debate whether or not blacks and other non-whites are human or not, and depict them as mindless, worthless beings. I want every Chinese, Indian, and Japanese soldier to learn about Tintin, Babar, the Turner Diaries, and the other great literary works that increasingly define the West. So if a world war does come, Asia won’t hesitate to do to your people what you did to theirs.

  6. Charles

    >The book is undoubtedly racist. The natives that Tintin encounters speak
    >in a dim-witted pidgin English

    Is the argument that English is the best language, and it’s therefore insulting to other cultures to suggest that they might not speak it as well as we do? The basic assumption here is insulting to the very people we’re trying to support. The Africans in Tintin in the Congo speak much better English than I speak any-language-other-than-English. It’s only our own bias that says that English is the language that matters.

    >and dress in the ridiculous remnants of western clothing. They are foolish
    >and lazy, and are so enamored of their Great White visitor that they make
    >him their king, and eventually elevate him to a sort of godlike status.

    I don’t see anything racial in suggesting that primitive, tribal societies are less sophisticated than more advanced ones. That’s simply the reality of the matter. The race of the tribal society is irrelevant. The lack of schools and education is the real culprit, not their skin colour.

    In The Prisoners of the Sun, Tintin fools an entire Inca society into believing he caused an eclipse. Is that racist? No, because there’s nothing in the text to suggest that their lesser astronomical knowledge was the result of any genetic inferiority. He simply knew something they didn’t. A bigot might look at that and conclude that that’s what all Incas, or all South Americans, or even all dark-skinned people are equally uniformed, and that it demonstrated some genetic superiority, but of course it doesn’t, and wouldn’t even if the book claimed it did (which it didn’t). You might as well argue that Thomson and Thompson are a racist depiction of Caucasians.

    They dress in western clothing because they were the colony of a western nation at the time. They dress in remnants because they were poor. The idea that there’s anything genetic about bad fashion choices is a complete head scratcher to me.

    >This is not a depiction of Africans that children should be exposed to. It can only
    >foster racism and prejudice if read at face-value by impressionable children.

    You know, I would buy that argument when the book was written more than I’d buy it now. At a time when virtually all depictions of Africans and/or African/Americans was negative, then a book like this would just reinforce the idea that this was indicative of the entire group. Not now, though. Now there are plenty of positive role-models to provide a different image. If any kid read this book, and concluded that everyone in the world who had dark skin was as foolish as the tribesmen in this book, I would not believe he’d come to that conclusion of his own accord. I’d think somebody planted it in his mind.

    Similar case: The Japanese used the basic training scene from the Abbott & Costello movie “Buck Privates” to show to their troops, and told them that all American soldiers were equally incompetent. Does that mean the movie is “racist” against Americans? No, it’s not. But if someone plants in your mind the idea that “this isn’t just one group of nitwits, this is what all Americans are like”, then you might believe it. But I wouldn’t blame the movie for that.

    Still, with kids you never know. It probably is for the best to move it to the graphic novel section. Even if it’s not racist as such, the violence and colonial attitudes merit such a move. Well, maybe not the colonial attitudes. They eerily match present-day attitudes. Now, as then, we seem to feel that dark-skinned people need to be taken care of and protected from things that we’d never dream of protecting others from. Take Robert’s comment above. Or, take “Buck Privates” again. When you heard that the Japanese said Abbott & Costello were what all Americans were like, you probably just laughed. Sure, it’s an insult, but it’s too ridiculous even to be offended by.

  7. Spencer

    Charles: “In The Prisoners of the Sun, Tintin fools an entire Inca society into believing he caused an eclipse. Is that racist? No, because there’s nothing in the text to suggest that their lesser astronomical knowledge was the result of any genetic inferiority.”

    It’s not racist because of any implied genetic inferiority, it’s racist because to suggest that Tintin could fool a bunch of Incas into believing he’d caused an eclipse, when Inca astronomers had been tracking and predicting eclipses 500 years before, is a pretty dumb idea. Good comic, but that there’s a plot hole.

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