Tintin in the United Kingdom

In London, a customer’s outrage has caused Borders to pull Tintin in the Congo from the children’s section of its UK stores. (That the customer was a human-rights lawyer is probably incidental.) From the Associated Press (“Borders stores in UK shelve Tintin book,” by Raphael G. Satter):

David Enright, a London-based human-rights lawyer, was shopping at Borders with his family when he came upon the book, first published in 1931, and opened it to find what he characterized as racist abuse.

“The material suggests to (children) that Africans are subhuman, that they are imbeciles, that they’re half savage,” Enright said in a telephone interview.

“My black wife, who actually comes from Africa originally, is sitting there with my boys and I’m about to hand this book to them…. What message am I sending to them? That my wife is a monkey, that they are monkeys?

The book will now be sold in the graphic-novel section. Enright would prefer that it not be sold at all, but instead displayed in a museum under the heading “old fashioned, racist claptrap.”

I haven’t read the Tintin in question, but I do have a big stack of them from when I was a kid. And even the non-Congo books are full of racist stereotypes, the least of which is that the bad guy always seems to be swarthy. Now that I’m a father, I’ve wondered from time to time how or if I should present them to my kids. Do I hand them over with a disclaimer (“enjoy the adventures, but be advised that this is chock-full of harmful racist stereotypes”) or do I just keep them in their box, figuring that there are plenty of good books that don’t need disclaimers — and the less attention we pay to them the sooner they’ll leave the cultural imagination?

But then of course there’s the Peter Jackson movie, so I guess we can probably look forward to Tintin Happy Meals. Although Tintin may have a multicultural team of helpers by then, too.

It’s tough to argue against book censorship when an offensive book is the test case. But it seems that an appropriate solution has been reached here: sell it to people who are old enough to understand the issues. (This is different from taking, for example, gay-themed books out of the kids’ section.) Pulling books from the shelves entirely has always been a very dangerous act.



About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix (2011). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

7 Comments on "Tintin in the United Kingdom"

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  1. john.drabinski@gmail.com' John says:

    I just posted a reflection on this case.

    I think it is important to see this as a matter of moral and political judgment, not censorship. After all, it is just a question of whether or not Borders wants to traffic in these sorts of images. Especially urgent, as you note, given that they’re kid-books and that there are plenty of other, better ways for kids to learn about racism.

    The museum…yes, that’s a good place for the book. That way we can actually have a space in which to comment on the book, its ideology, and so forth.

    The movie? Ugh. I guess it gives us more to blog about in the future…

  2. Keir says:

    But doesn’t all censorship start with someone claiming to have better moral and political judgment? I don’t think I have better judgment than everyone else, and so I don’t know where to draw the line if we do start pulling books from shelves. What other books have to go? And do we take them out of libraries, too? And if so, what tools do people have for researching racism? That may sound like a stretch, but simply hiding the manifestations of racism doesn’t eliminate the attitudes that cause it. And ignoring the bad parts of history surely improves our chances to repeat them.

  3. john.drabinski@gmail.com' John says:

    Libraries are very different than bookstores, I think. In the case of libraries, I think an interesting question is that of cataloging. Perhaps these sorts of books should be relocated, so that the “historical lesson” (not sure what it is; it seems just an example rather than something actually instructive) is clear from the cataloging term.

    I guess I am comfortable saying that my judgment “the depiction of Congolese in Tintin is hateful and racist and therefore bad” is better than the original author’s judgment that it is amusing, fun, or accurate. Not sure if that addresses your point.

    I doubt many actually advocate banning books. Some of us, though, think that real harm is done when kids pick up this particular book and see themselves or their friends or their fellow citizens depicted in such disgusting images. The “lesson” part of it all is, frankly, for adults. I don’t want to work it all out through li’l brains, that’s all.

  4. Keir says:

    I agree that this is a tough one for kids to process, and that’s why I think the solution here was a good one–the book was moved out of the kids’ section. But often even people who want to ban books will tell you that they’re not in favor of banning books–they just want to make them harder for kids to find. And sometimes even moving a book from the place where people expect to find it can effectively be censorship.

    It’s a terrible test case. I don’t want to argue in favor of people reading comic books that depict Africans as subhuman. But I think we always have to err on the side of inclusion, even if we don’t feel great about it. Not every case is so clear cut, and we don’t always know why people want to read something in the first place.

    Hey–are you a Hampshire student? Or did I follow the wrong link?

    Keir Graff, F89
    Mods 89 and 92

  5. john.drabinski@gmail.com' John says:

    No real argument from me. I do think it is possible to define kinds of harm and employ that as a basis for these sorts of decision. Now THAT is a long discussion.

    It is a bad case for general rules, I think, but it is a compelling one nonetheless because so many people read and enjoy Tintin. Without thinking about their complicity in those icky ideas.

    Not a Hampshire student – but I teach them every semester! Faculty, live in FPH. Though I appreciate the compliment – the possible appearance of youth in print!

  6. namebutler@gmail.com' Dave says:

    Tintin books are full of what you would lightly call inappropriate cultural references. They do cause some extra explaining (two kids at home). I’d say that having them on the top shelf (where kids can’t just grab them) or in a different section is a good solution.

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