An illustrated children’s book from the 1930s, Tintin in the Congo, controversial for its outdated racial stereotyping, is about to take a seat with the graphic novels at a major bookstore chain – Borders, this according to a story on MSNBC.com. I disagree with this decision even as much as I admire Borders for a lot of other things they do.
Tintin in the Congo is one of 23 books by author-cartoonist Herge, the pen name of Georges Remi, being reissued to mark his centennial. The other books in the series will remain in the childrens book section.
If you’re familiar with the graphic novels section of the bookstore, you know it’s full of superhero fiction, books on Japanese anime characters, and books of Japanese anime "sexploitation." Depending on where Borders places this book, be careful if you take the kids with you to find it. It may be in a general display area or it may be closer to the sexploitation (because of its controversy) area. I have a feeling it will be in the former, which is usually closer to the superhero area, but be forewarned that the other exists.
Here’s my problem with this tactic: Tintin in the Congo isn’t a graphic novel, it’s a children’s book. It was written and illustrated long, long ago at a time when people had horrible ideas about the races. According to the MSNBC.com article, “Remi depicts the white hero’s adventures in the Congo against the backdrop of an idiotic, chimpanzee-like native population that eventually comes to worship Tintin — and his dog — as gods.” I believe the publisher has taken a more responsible approach, which is to reissue the book with an explanation in the preface that puts the racism in context. Instead of sequestering the book in graphic novels, why not create a display in the children’s books section that highlights how times and views have changed and the fact that Remi was actually embarrassed by this book and later editions were changed to omit offensive material. Use it as an educational piece instead of hiding it away!
Our society so loves to punish that it often fails to change the offensive behavior for which the punishment is administered. Take the case of Don Imus. I am not a fan of Mr. Imus and I am definitely not an apologist for him. What he said that got him fired from MSNBC-TV and CBS Radio was offensive and insensitive and stupid. But what if instead of firing him, his bosses had forced him during his suspension from the air to travel around the country hosting a public panel discussion on racism? What if he were forced to face the actual people he had offended in an open and frank discussion in a dozen or more libraries, churches, or auditoriums? What if he discussed the words he had used and their actual meaning? Their origins. Who has the right to use them (if anyone?). Who the people were he was talking about when he used them. Who he is in relation to the community of people he offended. Who else uses those words and whether or not they have the right to use them. What is one’s responsibility versus one’s right of free speech. And so on. Exposure to all this would have given him a whole different perspective and change in view that firing him outright never will, and we would have had a dialogue on racism that we aren’t having now.
In the same way, hiding this book in graphic novels is going keep the book from offending some people, but it’s never going to address the issue of racism and its roots in the 1930’s culture the book sprang from. And we will never learn from those mistakes.