In recent weeks a brouhaha has been boiling up over the publication, for the first time in English (Little, Brown Young Readers; Reprint edition in the United States), of one of Hergé’s famous comic strip Tintin books, Tintin in the Congo (Tintin au Congo).
Written and drawn in 1930-31, originally in black and white, serialized form, it appeared in a Brussels newspaper’s weekly youth supplement, Le Petit Vingtiém. The story tells the tale of Tintin, an imagined boy reporter for the supplement, who travels with Snowy, his opinionated canine sidekick, to the Belgian Congo, still a colony of Belgium.
Due to controversy over its sub-human depictions of the Congolese people, and some of the extremely violent acts that Tintin perpetrates against African wildlife he encounters (he stuffs a live rhinoceros with dynamite and blows him to smithereens), the 1930-31 version was replaced by a redrawn, colorized, and somewhat sanitized, though still highly racist, version in 1946. Still, it never appeared in English until now.
This year is the 100th birthday of Georges Remi, the cartoonist who gained world-renown using the pen name Hergé, the Tintin author. In honor of the occasion, the first English-language translation of the original black and white version of Tintin au Congo is being published.
In response, the British Commission for Racial Equality issued a strong protest, demanding that the Borders chain remove the book from their stores in Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the United States. Borders’ reaction to the protest was to announce that the book would not be stocked with other children’s books, but would still be available in the “adult graphic novel section,” along with other—often semi-pornographic— illustrated fiction.
The choice was a telling, if unconscious, one; an implicit admission that racism, like pornography, is a guilty pleasure suitable for adults but not for children. Whether adults are more in control of their race hatred than children is highly questionable, but the question remains. What to do with the book?
The original comic version of Tintin in the Congo, appeared in the children’s supplement of a conservative Catholic Belgian newspaper, Le Vingtiéme Siecle. The editor of the was Father Norbert Wallez, a right-wing reactionary who proudly displayed a personally inscribed photograph of Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, on the wall of his office.
According to Nilanjana S. Roy, writing from New Delhi for the Business Standard, July 20, 2007, Hergé was taking marching orders from Wallez, his mentor and boss. “He suggested to Hergé that his next adventure [the previous one, his first, was an intrigue-filled visit to the Soviet Union—editor] should educate Belgians about the values of colonialism.” Roy continues, “The Congo was a Belgian colony at the time, and Wallez told Hergé to depict the many ways in which civilization had been brought to the unenlightened natives. As one may imagine,” Roy adds, “this is not a popular or even acceptable perspective in our times; in 1930, however, Wallez’s sentiments were almost unexceptionable.”
Hergé would eventually distance himself from Tintin au Congo and its condescending and violent colonialist perspective, explaining that his own ignorance, and an influential editor, had motivated the unfortunate storyline. “All I knew about the country was what people said at the time: ‘Negroes are big children. Happily for them we are there.’”
Given this, and the book’s monkey-like depiction of Africans, a call to ban the book is not surprising—though book banning is mostly the activity of tyrants and fanatics. (Then again, an English translation of Mein Kampf remains in print and continues to place fairly well in the Amazon ranking system.) The issue is, should children—or adults for that matter—be shielded from the toxic and murderous legacy of colonialism, or should they be educated as to the ways that systems of culture and knowledge have too often provided amusing and lubricated corridors for the proliferation of racist and other repugnant ideas. The Belgian occupation of the Congo was murderous and marked by the massacres of entire villages, reducing the indigenous population by half.
In writing our recent book, Typecasting: The Arts & Sciences of Human Inequality, we encountered and documented, the history of ideas of human inequality, and Tintin in the Congo is part of a for-the-most-part unknown or hidden tradition that needs to be known and dissected, not hidden from view in the “adult section.” It is tough stuff to look at, and demands surgical examination, but banning and/or hiding it in the "adult section" only contributes to the lurid fascination that racially or sexually hateful materials often provoke when examined furtively, or among a coterie of devotees who accept these values as their own. The light of day is a friend, particularly when it is directed thoughtfully.
Since its publication in Britain (it will appear in the United States in September), Tintin in the Congo has jumped onto the bestseller list at Amazon and is being prolifically back-ordered in the U.S. It won’t go away.
We hope that S&S readers will share their thoughts on how to create a forum about the book, and other artifacts of European conquest, that will help to build a greater sense of human community, that will encourage all of us to be able to see through the eyes of others. Without that, book or no book, we will remain in deep shit.
NOTE: The online publication, The Red Pencil, has some interesting back and forth about how teachers should think about presenting the book to students. You might want to have a look at a piece by Vivek. A follow up piece is of interest as well.
With Tintin, it wasn't just Africa that received a racist treatment. The series is a panoply, worthy of scrutiny because it gives one a vivid and sense of the influence of entertainment on children's ways of seeing.