Thursday, 19 May 2011
Tintin on trial
Following the decision of a Brussels court to finally let the case of racism brought against the publishers of owners of Tintin by one Mbuto Mondondo go ahead after several years I decided to give my two cents to the argument. For anyone who doesn't know Tintin in the Congo is easily the most controversial book in the classic children's adventure comic series. It depicts the Congolease in a manner pretty typical of the time: coal black, thick lipped, not so sure how to wear clothes properly, idiotic, gullible, and in need of a sense of direction from the glorious white race. However there were plenty of other comics and books etc that also presented race in a questionable light, and if you search Youtube for controversial black figures in animation from the 1920's-1940's you'll probably come up with a veritable gold mine. There were no real positive black figures in comics until the 60's and 70's and even then they weren't exactly numerous, or fully formed human beings (I'm thinking of Marvel's Luke Cage who was the first black superhero with his own comic, and who at times pandered to blaxplotation cliches rather than explore more complex issues)*(1). Of course Tintin is the most famous example and this is probably why it got picked on, along with the fact that while superhero comics always carry a hint of violence to them, Tintin usually slips under the radar as being a torch bearer for the innocence of youth.
So the question is, should racist views, and uncomfortable events in our past be swept under the carpet and ignored or should we analyse them and try to learn from them? Hilter's Mein Kamp is available to buy and yet we don't worry about churning out a new generation of Hitlers. I used to work with a guy who once told me he felt guilty for the all the crimes white people had committed against black people. How did he elevate this guilt? By giving them free fried chicken, a food they are stereotypically inclined to like. I for one don't feel this 'white man's burden', I wasn't around then, I didn't commit those crimes, so why should I feel guilty?
If we censor something there will be people out there looking for an excuse to justify their own racist viewpoint: ""they did this because this is dangerous, they did this because they are afraid to speak the truth" etc. A classic example of this line of thinking was the relatively recent debate about whether or not Nick Griffin, the head of the BNP, should appear on Question Time. Many people thought he should not be given the opportunity to air his views on television, but I was in agreement that to censor him would just justify his party line, whereas what we saw was him making a fool of himself on national television, and hopefully taking a bit of credibility away from his beliefs.
I don't think the question here should be is TinTin in the Congo racist, it undoubtedly is, and I agree with one commentator who suggests that 'it's of is time' is a poor excuse that crops up time and time again. But should it be banned? No.
There are plenty of graphic novels, and books that can be used in a class room environment to teach tolerance and understanding. Art Speigelman's Maus is the obvious example (because something strange I have noticed when coming into contact with people with ignorant views concerning race is that they all think the Holocaust was a horrific unforgivable thing, yet they can't seem to put two and two together). But I really believe this book could be used as a tool for analysing history and indeed racism itself,. The racism presented in this book is a different kind of monster to the racism we might see today. In colonial times we the Empire took a paternalistic view towards those under our colonial stronghold. We were the fathers, the educators, the moral guides, to these ignorant unruly, yet ultimately well meaning children, and of course they were ever grateful for it (thus the allusions to Tintin being worshiped as a god). There was no unrest, ours was a perfect and nessecery presence (not an intrusion). I also think that we don't have to impose such age limitation on this book, and I think it could be introduced to children as early as 10 years old, in a controlled classroom environment. We should give children more credit, past a certain age they don't have to be sponges for everything they hear outside the classroom, perhaps making them feel that they can be trusted to handle this kind of material, will sharpen their powers of analysis and make them more aware of what racism is (after all children can often say things without being aware of the implications-I remember using gay a lot to suggest bad or rubbish without ever being aware of its link to homosexuality). So long as they are given the context of these images, as one commentator remembers soaking up and accepting this view of black people in the same way that as a child he accepted that America was full of cowboys, Indians, and gangsters from the movies.
According to one source Mondondo said he would be happy if the book was moved to the adults section in bookshops and an explanatory introduction putting the views and representations into context were to be printed in the book, both of these things I thought had already happened. My edition published by Egomont has a small paragraph explaining the influence of colonial attitudes, but perhaps this is not comprehensive enough.
One thing that often gets lost in the arguments surrounding race in this book is also the depiction of big game hunting. In one section of the book Tintin ends up (accidentally, but he had intended to kill at least one) killing a whole group of antelopes.
Also for a brilliant alternative to Tintin in the Congo you could do no better than reading Afrikaan artists Joe Dog and Conrad Botes Bittercomix (which relies heavily on satire to give a view of life in South Africa and references Herge probably on more than one occasion) and even Herge's later Tintin album Tintin in Tibet (approved by the Dali Lama himself) which takes an a slightly more peaceful view of forgien people (although you could argue that although Herge's representation of the Tibetan people is much more positive, it is still fairly one-dimensional).
(*1) For a much more comprehensive look at the depiction of blacks in comics you should probably buy Black Images In The Comics by Fredrik Stomberg