Anorak News | Tintin In The Congo: The ‘White Gods’ Have Spoken

Tintin In The Congo: The ‘White Gods’ Have Spoken

by | 13th, July 2007

TINTIN is banned. Dizzy writes:

I’ve never particularly liked Tintin stories, never really read them much and to be honest I always preferred the satirising of them in comics like Viz. However, it seems that the question over whether a specific Tintin book should be banned as been raised, and I have to admit I find the arguments in favour of such actions slightly worrying.

The book in question is Tintin in the Congo, a book that is, so the argument goes, racist in its entirety. Now I admit, here and now, that I have not read it all, you are therefore free to dismiss everything I about to write on that basis but I would say hear me out first.

I have seen one specific scene from the book, thanks to a reprint in this morning’s Times which shows Tin Tin dispensing quinine to a man who presumably has malaria and then being praised like a white God by the wife of the man who’s life has been saved meaning he can return to hunting.

I have searched this section a number of times and I am trying to figure out where the actual racism lies in it. To be honest with you I imagine some people might find the answer to such a question obvious, the last image of the scene is, after all, an African woman on her knees worshipping the white man and saying how wonderful he is.

However, I find myself wondering, what exactly would have happened all those years ago in a similar situation? David Livingstone, for example, was as I understand it, renowned for doing just this sort of thing with quinine. This makes me ask myself the following.

If I were a native African in the deepest “heart of darkness” as Joseph Conrad called it, and I lived in a pre-Enlightenment culture, what would be my reaction to a strange looking guy appearing, wearing odd clothes, who was also a completely different skin colour to me and miraculously saving the life of my spouse?

What I’m saying here is that, in at least the very specific cartoon I have seen, I don’t think the situation itself is entirely unbelievable, when contextualised into our historical and scientific understanding of Western medicine in comparison to the pre-Enlightenment culture of deepest Africa at the time.

So if the situation itself is not racist, could it be the translation into English of Herge’s characters? The African characters do, after all, speak in a manner that to some might appear negatively disparaging. There could be an implication that they’re in some way backward. However again I find myself thinking, you’re a western European, you’ve just stumbled upon people living in Africa in almost seclusion, are they likely to speak fluent English?

In fact, even today, the prevalence of Pidgin English around the world suggests that some people do indeed sound like the words in the speech bubbles. It doesn’t mean they are stupid though; it is just the nature of linguistic development. If you visit a vast number of African nations that were formerly British colonies you will find the most richest and diverse hybridisations of English anywhere.

One thing that could be offensive I imagine, but not because of race, is the Belgian connection. This is an historical point though rather than a racial one. It is pretty well documented that the Belgian Empire were, to say the least, complete bastards through and through. A quick look at the way the different European empires had carved up Africa and how Africa looks now exemplifies that fact. The British Empire, which is still held in negativity by many, tended to at least leave behind institutions of civil society, whilst the Belgian’s in the Congo sort of, well… just look at it.

As I say though, I’ve not read the whole book, and for all I know there may be scenes of mass slaughter in it, but in the part I’ve seen what I do see is a scenario that may well have happened and had the same effective outcome. True there may be a bit of positive Belgian spin on their time in Africa, but that is not about racism it’s about history and the accuracy/inaccuracy thereof.

If the book is banned though, what does that actually say about our attitude toward our place within linear history? If we ban something from sale because it no longer represents the views that we have today, then does that not imply that we perceive history itself as a static point in time? That our place in it is only ever in the now, and therefore views, ideas and thought must only ever be grounded in the now as well?

If we do that are we not actually, in effect, destroying the past and pretending that all roads that led us to where we are should be forgotten? Isn’t that what book banning on the grounds that it no longer fits our current views actually implies? Book editing too falls into this realm as well surely? The editing out of sexism in Enid Blyton for example, which – if you stood in a pub with five men or five women you’d soon discover isn’t dead at all – isn’t that an action by the ‘Ministry of Truth’ to control the present by destroying the past?

There are of course those who argue that such books, especially as they are targeted at children, reinforce racism. If we assume for a moment that the books are indeed racist as the critics say, is it the book that is at fault, or the failure of the parent and/or teacher to apply historical context to their reading? It’s worth noting of course that we hear no calls for books like Mein Kampf and certain Islamic literature to be banned though, is that simply because they do not appeal to children I wonder?

I wonder if, at some point in the future we will start to ban film on these kind fo grounds too? The question I wonder in those sort of cases is, which is worse, a film about the trenches of WWI with lots of racism in it. or a film about WWI where the trench is ethnically diverse and everyone lives in perfect racial harmony?* If the way in which we are calling for old books to be banned or edited is anything to go by, how long will it be before films start to go the same way, and we project the views of today dishonestly on to the events of the past?

Of course maybe we will indeed see this Tintin book along with others banned. I wonder though if it might just be easier to burn them instead. I mean, I realise it’s been done before but we’re more enlightened now… right?

* Before someone points out that there were mixtures of races in the trenches and thus damns the example, the purpose of the analogy is a general one about how applying our world view today to the world of the past is a dishonest manipulation of history.

Posted: 13th, July 2007 | In: Reviews Comments (4) | TrackBack | Permalink