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.
I 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.