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Billions of Bilious Blue Blistering Barnacles

July 19, 2007

There have been a number of articles in the paper this week about Tintin, the hero of a series of Belgian comics drawn since the 1930s by a man writing as “Hergé.” Several bookstore chains have been moving copies of TinTin in the Congo out of the children’s section and into the graphic novel section. The reasons for this have to do with the novel’s depiction of Africans as ”subhumans… imbeciles… half-savage.”

The book was moved, rather than removed, because of the historical nature of the work. The idea behind reclassifying it as a graphic novel is that adults are better able to process historical context than children.

I have to say, though, that I’m not at all sure that this is true. AJ is completely unaware of any racist implications simply because he doesn’t have any concept of race. Difference in skin color is just that. For him it has no baggage. Whereas most adults at one time or another find themselves fighting some kind of experiencethat has caused them to be less than open minded. Grownups are the ones who came up with profiling. And genocide. And slavery (although I’ve seem some sibling relationships that might call this last one into question).

And yet we don’t want to be unwittingly communicating racial bias by showing our kids questionable material without explanation, which is why AJ and I have been talking about this. We’ve been on a Tintin binge since March, when we came across some of my brother’s old copies of some of the books on a visit to my parents’ house. My brother and I discovered Tintin when we were kids and living in Europe. I read them in the original French, which I’d studied in school longer than he, and he read them in English. The French copies fell apart, thanks to the wonders of French paperback binding techniques (I don’t think I own a single paperback published in France with all the pages intact. I suppose this may have given me my own kind of ethnic bias). My brother’s English language copies, though are still around.

Currently, AJ and I are reading Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks, which we checked out of the children’s section of our local library, in which Tintin and Captain Haddock try to break up a ring of Arabs smuggling arms, aircraft and Africans to be sold as slaves. The depiction of ethnicity, both the Arabs and the African Muslims, is antiquated and a bit uncomfortable. Some of it is about archaic language – the Africans are referred to as a group as “negroes.” But some of it, as with the Congo book, is the drawings. The Africans are caricatures. They have huge lips and dark oblong faces. They wear fezzes. They look like a combination between an African carved mask and an organ grinder’s monkey and they all look pretty much identical. All this makes it hard to read and look at. But I’m not sure that keeping it away from children is the answer – for one thing, the book’s overall message is a good one; for another, it’s an exciting story. I prefer to address the problems it yields head on.

In the case of Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks, a good part of the story hinges on Tintin and Captain Haddock discovering a large group of African Muslims imprisoned in the hold of the ship. They had been lured onto the ship thinking they were taking a religious pilgrimage. “We are good Muslims,” they keep saying. “We want to go to Mecca.” Tintin and Captain Haddock are properly horrified at the notion of slave trading, so horrified that they don’t believe at first that it is actually taking place. Once they come around, however, they do everything they can to rescue the Africans and keep them safe. Despite the caricatures, Tintin and Captain Haddock do not treat the Africans like subhumans or imbeciles or half-savages. They treat them like people.

The Arabs are stereotyped too. On the one hand, there are the bad Arabs, the ones engaging in terrorism and smuggling and human trafficking. Then there are the friendly Arabs, the ones that our heroes are trying to help out. They send the troublemaking young son of a deposed king and his entourage to camp out in Captain Haddock’s stately English mansion. The illustrations show a Bedouin village camped out in a gilded stateroom.

But while we’re on the subject of caricatures, let’s look at one of our heroes, Captain Haddock. He’s a stereotyped drunk sea captain with colorful language (“Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!”) and a serious problem with whiskey. Given the way in which the comics are written, it seems possible that Hergé didn’t see a difference between the Captain Haddock stereotype and the African stereotype. They were both for comic relief. It is, after all, a comic book, a genre that has traditionally reveled in stereotypes. As far as I can tell, there is equal opportunity for insults.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t feel, today, a difference . I don’t mean to excuse it, exactly, and from what I understand, the caricatures in Tintin in the Congo are much more dangerous. Even Hergé reportedly regretted that particular aspect of that particular book. But still, caricatures are everywhere and we are not consistently offended by all of them. Stereotypes of drunk sea captains don’t bother us. Stereotypes of Italian Americans rarely bother us — just try cable channel surfing and try not to come up with one (Take your pick: The Sopranos, The Untouchables, The Godfather, Everybody Loves Raymond). So maybe it’s better to explain to children what the problem is exactly.

AJ and I have been reading Tintin and the Red Sea Sharks serially at bedtime. A couple of days ago, I got to a point where I was just plain uncomfortable reading to AJ, so I stopped to talk about it.

“Remember when we talked about what Dr. Martin Luther King did?”

“Yes. He made it so all children could play together, no matter what color their skin was.”

I smothered a smile. I like the way he’s personalized the story, especially given the marked lack of diversity in our little town. “That’s right. Remember that some people thought people with different colored skin – we call them people of a different race – were not as good as other people, or maybe weren’t even people. That’s like how the slave traders are in this book. But Tintin and Captain Haddock know that it’s wrong, and they’re trying to help.

“Okay.” He still doesn’t see what the problem is.

“I like that part of the story, AJ, but some of this is hard to read because the author uses words that we don’t use today and he makes the people look like they’re not really people. So even though it’s a good story, I find this part hard to read, so I’m going to skip over some of it, okay?”

“Okay. It’s kind of like making fun of people. Like calling them monkeys.”

“Exactly.”

“But why’d he do it?”

“He thought it was funny, I guess. But I don’t think it’s funny.”

“But Mommy, you sometimes call me a monkey.”

“Yes, I do. But I do that because I love you. And you like it, right?”

“Yes. Maybe they liked it too.”

“Maybe, but they’re not real people. And see how he drew them so they all looked the same? I don’t think he thought of them as real people either.”

AJ peers over my arm to examine the picture more closely.

“But maybe that’s just because they’re not a big part of the story.”

“I think you’re right, AJ. That’s part of it. I don’t think Hergé meant to insult anyone. But I think maybe he did by accident. And that’s still not good.”

“Yeah.”

And I really think it is true that Hergé meant no harm. From what little I know of Hergé, mostly through his books, he meant very well, but like all of us, he was a product of his time and place. Hergé clearly put an incredible amount of time and research into his Tintin books. When we were reading the books that take place on the moon – written well before a moon landing had taken place or, I think, been seriously attempted – the amount of accurate information and his prescience of how such a venture might actually take place was astounding. AJ remarked on this recently when reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book that takes place in a totally fictionalized space. He loved that one too, but kept remarking on things like, “There’s no planet Floyd!” and “That couldn’t happen if there’s no gravity.”

I guess my point is that I’m glad the books were moved rather than censored. I appreciate the stories and their factual content and the way they’ve captured AJ’s imagination. But I also appreciate the opportunity to talk about it with AJ, to teach him how to be critical of what he sees and reads. Because I can’t protect him from the unpleasant and the dangerous and the cruel or even the misguided forever. History is unpleasant and dangerous and cruel and misguided. And it is also amazing and fascinating and mind-bending and generous. And ultimately AJ is going to need to discern the difference on his own.

[It occurs to me that I’ve broached a similar topic from a different angle vis-à-vis the anti-Semitic text in Bach’s St. John Passion. If you want to read about that as well, click here.]

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    July 19, 2007 10:30 am

    Whew. There’s a lot here. Gotta think on it. We, of course, run into this a lot, especially when I read Dusty from my huge Little Nemo comic book. Lots of cigar smoking and racial stereotypes but Dusty doesn’t recognize them as such. The characters are just weird and otherworldly. We’ve had the “brown skin” discussions before and I posted an example of it today. I am hopeful this generation will grow up with less racial baggage than ours has. Dusty judges people by the way they treat her and others (nice vs not nice) and that’s about as far as it goes for her. It would be nice to think it’ll continue this way. I have plenty of ugly personal stories to share with her one day. When a “teaching moment” occurs. But not until then.

  2. eleanorio permalink
    July 19, 2007 12:33 pm

    You did well on this one. It’s a difficult subject to tackle. I felt the same kind of discomfort reading my kids the Narnia books because they are so Christian, and we are not. Yet I loved the stories and I’ve reread them many times myself. Still, I just read the bits I disagreed with to them and didn’t bother making any comment, figuring if they had questions, we could discuss them later. I gather this was your problem, not AJ’s, and you felt you had to justify why you were skipping over stuff. I can appreciate that.

  3. July 19, 2007 1:52 pm

    Have you and AJ done the Dr. Dolittle books? Sam eproblem – great stories, terrific imagination, but a strong bit of racism, including a Black African prince who, more than anything else, wants to be white.

  4. July 19, 2007 4:18 pm

    My childhood copy of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” features Oompa Loompas who are dark-skinned ‘pygmies’ brought to the factory as slave labor and paid with cocoa beans, as I recall. At some point, the book was revised because when I read it to one of my nieces (ca. mid-1980’s), her copy of the book featured be-wigged white, er, pygmies. I heartily commend the re-classification of Tin-Tin over the re-writing or outright banning that could have come from the racism uproar. Erasing cultural/racial history, ugly as some of it is, doesn’t change it and certainly does nothing to enlighten present-generation kids.

  5. July 19, 2007 7:10 pm

    Thanks for all your comments. freshhell, I am totally in that camp as well, most of the time. This was, however, a “teaching moment” because, as eleanor pointed out, I was uncomfortable with reading what was on the page. And AJ is a stickler for accuracy, so I had to explain myself. Lemming, I’d forgotten about that aspect of Dr. Doolittle. I’m sure there’s a doctoral thesis in here somewhere — colonialist themes in children’s lit. I haven’t read Dr. Doolittle since I was a kid, but I’m sure that I read it on my own with no adult intervention. That story was undoubtedly just a story to me, fanciful like the rest of the book. And maybe that’s not a bad way to read it either, although at some point, I do think it’s a good idea to consider the overtones, if only to help keep the same mistakes from perpetuating into a new generation. Lass, my copy of Charlie and the Chocolate factory was purchased in London in the 1970s and it has the whole Pygmy story and questionable illustrations as well. But whether because I was older (probably 8 or 9) when I first read Charlie or because Roald Dahl seems to bend over backwards explaining how it was okay to treat the Oompa Loompas that way because that was how they WANTED to be treated — they loved cocoa beans and couldn’t get enough at home — I was uncomfortable with that right away. I did read that part to AJ, though, without discussion. I’m not sure why I made that choice then and a different one with Tintin. Maybe because AJ’s older now.

  6. freshhell permalink
    July 20, 2007 7:54 am

    No, I agree with you – perfect moment to bring it up. I was just referring to myself. I think sometimes I stumble across something in an older book that makes me uncomfortable (and actually we’ve had this kind of conversation about Bugs Bunny cartoons – some of which have some incredibly obnoxious Af-Am, Native Am stereotypes, etc. – and I tend to ignore them when I sense Dusty wouldn’t be interested in a conversation (which might end up sounding like a lecture out of my mouth) and just wants to hear a story. Other times, I sense she’s open to a discussion. Or, she can tell by my body language that I’ve hit something I don’t like. I think you handled this extremely well. now that I think about it, I did have a long conversation with Dusty once about Little Black Sambo, a story she likes because the tigers turn into butter. There’s the trickster theme that gets overshadowed (to us) by the objectionable illustrations of a black-face black Sambo. mainly, though, she didn’t see it the way I did, with all my baggage, and just enjoyed the story. But – they’re young. these are the kind of conversations we’re going to have over and over, tailored to their age as they get older.

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