It was the second installment in a series of comic strip albums (more affectionately known in literary circles as graphic novels) written and illustrated by a Belgian using the pen name Herge.
Originally appearing between 1930 and 1931 in the children’s supplement to the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtieme Siecle, the black and white graphic novel known as Tintin au Congo or Tintin in the Congo chronicled the adventures of a young Belgian reporter, Tintin, as he explored and endured the harsh dangers of the Congolese wildlife in Africa.
The storyline, when presented in this facile way, would seem to be no more controversial than a number of Man vs. Wild-type shows that you could catch any day of the week on the Discovery channel.
The problem with Tintin, however, is that the wildlife of Africa is depicted to include the native population, the human native population.
Illustrated with a pre-politically correct pen that graphically exaggerates the physical attributes of the native Congolese, the Tintin in the Congo series of cartoons is rife with depictions of native Africans that harkens back to the wide-eyed, nappy-haired, big-lipped images that one would see in a curio cabinet of offensive and racist black memorabilia.
In addition to the less-than-flattering graphic images of Africans, much of the dialogue is representative of the subservient, bow-to-the –master dynamic that the Belgians received or expected from the colonized Congolese during that time period.
In addition to images such as an African woman bowing to Tintin and extolling his European dominance by stating “White man, very great White mister is big juju man,” the Tintin adventure in the motherland is marked by other affronts to the sensibilities of modern readers.
Writer Lionel Laurent from Forbes.com said, “The story is filled with doctors, lazy natives who need to be put to work and over the top violence against animals.”
Though written before the Second World War, there seems to be a more recent reluctance from some to give the book a pass for its racial insensitivity.
In 2007, British lawyer David Enright came across the graphic novel in a Borders bookstore in England. Offended by the caricatures and overall racial
insensitivity of the work, he wrote a letter of complaint to the book vendor, demanding that all Borders stores remove Tintin in the Congo from their shelves.
Even with the backing of the Commission for Racial Equality, Enright had to settle for a compromise when Borders chose to move the books to the “adult graphic” section of the store, and out of the children’s section.
In 2009, Bienvenu Mbutu, a Congolese accountant living in Belgium, filed suit against the publisher of the Tintin adventures, Moulinsart. In his suit, Mbutu claims the book is propaganda for colonialism and amounts to “racism and xenophobia.”
Though the Belgian government has yet to rule on the viability of the suit, Mbutu’s lawyer has stated that he is prepared to take the case “all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, if necessary.”
Here in the States, a municipal library in Brooklyn, NY removed the book from its shelves when it received a complaint that the book “…had illustrations that were racially offensive and inappropriate for children.”
Literary censorship has always epitomized the slippery slope to which a philosophy of political correctness can lead. The attorney representing the cartoon’s publisher offers a reasonable defense when he notes, “To read in the 21st century a Tintin album dating back to 1931 requires a minimum of intellectual honesty.”
Literature often serves as a written chronicle of history that in its most utilitarian capacity acts as a rear view mirror reflecting the thoughts, concerns, misconceptions and even sociological fallacies that dominated the time.
A justifiable chill should run down the spine of any conscientious person confronted with these graphic images and offensive stereotypes, yet the context of their genesis cannot be ignored, and their elimination should not be the solution.
Though my almost fraternal affiliation with another writer allows me the objectivity to take this stance on a literary work, my compassion for archiving and studying the past does not translate into any compassion or appreciation for some other vestiges of the past, like the public display of the Confederate flag.
I’m still wrestling with that bit of philosophical hypocrisy. But hey, at least I can admit that it exists.