There are many creative works from other times and reflecting other standards that are considered unacceptable by modern audiences. Lullabies my grandfather crooned to my mother when she was a child were (accurately) judged racist and inappropriate by my father just a generation later. Attitudes towards women, people of color, war, smoking, and a host of other cultural assumptions permeate everything from advertisements to popular culture in every era, and this is also true of censure-ship. It was once forbidden in Hollywood to show such things as the inside of a women's thigh and the law defeated: commandments gleefully broken in the poorly scanned image at right. At the same time, it was thought perfectly appropriate to depict blacks as mammies and minstrels and women as weak and subservient. We should consider the context of such films and images as history even if we reject the values and attitudes they express. Informed readers and viewers can do this. Grade school children as a rule cannot.
So when a shopper at a Borders Bookstore in Britain happened upon a reissue of Tintin in the Congo in the children's section, he was appalled. Tintin books - what we used to call comics and are now considered "graphic books" - date from the 1930s and were written and illustrated by the Belgian author and artist Georges Prosper Remi - better known by his pen name Hergé - and have delighted children in many countries and been translated into many languages. I read them as a child. There is no question that they depict people of non-white backgrounds in extreme caricature, and Tintin the blond boy reporter is just as likely to be worshiped as a god by monkey-lipped savages as he is to be menaced by hook-nosed Arabs or painted Redskins. Even in his day, the works of Hergé provoked strong negative responses in certain societies, but not in the way one might assume from today's perspectives. Hergé caved to pressure from segregated America to modify the top image at left so that a menacing Middle Eastern type and not a black man was flogging one of the main characters.
Hergé toned down some of the artwork in later editions of Tintin in the Congo, but it remains one of his most offensively illustrated books in modern eyes. His Africans reflect prejudices about the "Dark Continent" that are jarring today and were pervasive in his own time. The book is not one I would give to my very bright seven year old daughter to read without supervision. In fact, she is sitting right beside me as I type, so why not ask her what she thinks of the image of the African army shown above?"
Dad: "Emily, when you look at this picture, what do you see?"
From the mouths of babes... The BBC reports that Borders in Britain has removed Tintin in the Congo and placed it in the adult "graphic book" section. The stores in America have followed suit, but they may need to move more than just this one book in the series. Tintin in America is filled with images of savage Redskins that are just as racist. And Tintin is not the only beloved European comic to depict Africans with big lips and wide, white eyes. Consider the pirate crew in Asterix, which if anything I enjoyed reading even more than Tintin:
There is and should be room in what we read and say to have fun with our differences, and biting satire can be as enjoyable as any other form of entertainment. I do not propose that the nationalism and cultural bias of Goscinny, and later also Uderzo, the creators and artists who brought the world of Asterix the Gaul to marvelous life in their books, should lead to outright censure-ship. Nor do I feel Tintin is beyond redemption. Clearly Hollywood feels the same, for Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson have teamed up to bring us a live action Tintin Trilogy.
But I do not let my young children watch R rated movies and I do not read them Little Black Sambo. We may one day enjoy reading both the Tintin and Asterix series together, taking all they have to offer including and especially the teaching moments they provide for an informed discussion about stereotypes and prejudice. Learning to discriminate is not in itself discrimination"; it can actually help prevent it. These conversations happened in my family when I was a child, and I read both Tintin and Asterix informed by those perspectives. Moving the books to an adult section of the bookstore gives adults the choice of how and whether to introduce their children to them in all their complexity and they will be in good company. Huck Finn is probably there already.