What issues do Hergé’s albums raise in terms of representation of ‘race’, and particularly ethnic and cultural stereotyping?
It is difficult for many to look upon nostalgic images of history and come to terms with their problematic qualities. This is particularly profound in Tintin comics, which many people remember fondly from childhood, yet find difficulties with as adults. But as a cultural icon of Belgium, the issue is even more difficult- as the country grows ever more cosmopolitan, the old comics, now in their 90th anniversary year, are becoming harder to look at without criticism. The imagery of white superiority is too prominent. Modern Belgium, and indeed, the modern world, is taking issue with Tintin.
Hergé presents the famous character Tintin as a well-travelled, clever, polite fellow, and there is no doubt that Tintin is likeable. The problem is not in the titular character, it’s in the presentation of the world he inhabits. Every depiction of a non-white race prior to Blue Lotus, and many beyond, is a negative stereotype, a caricature. (Mountfort, 2012) Now, today’s multicultural world is far better at understanding the nuances of culture and race, and it has to be recognised that Hergé was caught in the crossfires of the European propaganda machine that led to WWII, (Van den Braembussche, 2002) so I prefer to hold back the judge’s hammer on the artist. However, just because a text was created in a different time does not mean that it is immune to the critiques of today. To draw a quote from Mountfort (2012), “…Hergé unthinkingly reproduces the dehumanising racist stereotypes used to justify Belgian colonialism, including the now notorious ‘white man’s burden’ motif: in one panel Tintin is attributed the ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ when he breaks up a tussle between a pair of Africans who are arguing over a hat by cutting it in two, handing half to each. They respond, as the English translators have it: ‘White master very fair! Him give half-hat to each one.’ (1930; Hergé 1991: 47). The text, intended or not, is still offensive and the depiction of black people as imbecilic, intended or not, forgiven or not, is still deeply problematic to it’s audience.
Hergé became aware of the “paternalistic” depictions of his art later on in his life, citing a “bourgeois prejudice” (Mountfort, 2012), and appeared to regret many of his narrative choices. His rightist beliefs were stirred by the political climate – it would be overly-simplistic to call Hergé a mouthpiece for rightist propaganda, or even a reformed racist – to quote from the text: “As Apostolidès (2007: 55) has argued, ‘Hergé placed Tintin in charge of soothing the concerns of a rightist Europe caught in the conflict between communism on one border and capitalism on the other’ and that ‘[u]nregulated capitalism was abhorred even more than communism’ (Apostolidès 2010a: 9).” (Mountfort, 2012). Hergé was a white francophone who lived in Belgium, and his understanding of race and culture was a reflection of his time and country – a colonising power coming to terms with a new cosmopolitan Europe. Now, I have to mention this, Belgium is still sorting out some pretty heinous historical racial issues. Last year the Royal Museum for Central Africa dedicated memorial space to the seven Africans who died in the abhorrent Human Zoo of 1958 (Al Jazeera, 2018)(Boffey, 2018).
I just want to reiterate this: Belgium had a Human Zoo.
A Zoo, full of 598 black people from the Congo.
Belgium is absolutely a country with a problematic history when it comes to the dehumanisation of black people (Van den Braembussche, 2002), but to focus in, the album Tintin in the Congo (1930) draws black people in Jim-Crow-esque, “juju lipped” uniformity, (Mountfort, 2012), the ugliness of the form serving to make it’s white protagonist look more attractive by juxtaposition. Images like this have gone down poorly in Belgium today, and for good reason – they infer that whiteness is more inherently attractive, and that blackness is tantamount to uncivilised savagery and ugliness (Green, n.d.). Belgian activist Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo has been campaigning for over ten years to get this particular book banned, saying that it should not be read to children, as it could negatively affect the way they interact with black people in their community (Mountfort, 2012), (Al Jazeera English, 2019). Currently, the country is celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the series with an extra-large scale exhibition on Tintin as a cultural icon (Al Jazeera English, 2019). It is a nostalgic and interesting series that has touched many readers’ hearts over the last century. But alongside that fact, I hope Mondondo’s campaign gets another bout of publicity. I think his concerns are entirely valid – especially considering that Belgium had a Human Zoo full of black people in 1958.
To dissect a series as massive as Tintin and all its imagery- good and bad – would make an entire thesis and then some. This little sliver on its depiction of Central Africans is only a drop in an ocean – but it is still important. It shows how important stories are, how much of an impact books can have on people’s lives. Even if the nostalgia feels tainted, it still moved people as children, and if some of the messages in the text are problematic, it is important to acknowledge them.
Mountfort,P. (2012).‘Yellow skin, black hair … Careful, Tintin’: Hergé and Orientalism. Australasian Journal of Popular Culture Volume 1 Number 1. doi: 10.1386/ajpc.1.1.33_1.
Channel 4 News. (September, 2018) Inside the world’s ‘last colonial museum’ in Belgium. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYxWXdFBykw
Boffey, D. (April, 2018) Belgium comes to terms with ‘human zoos’ of its colonial past. The Guardian Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/16/belgium-comes-to-terms-with-human-zoos-of-its-colonial-past
Al Jazeera English. (January, 2019) Tintin 90 years on: Belgian comic book stirs racial controversy l Al Jazeera English. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQeBP8Si_XM
Van den Braembussche, A. (2002) The Silence of Belgium: Taboo and Trauma in Belgian Memory. DOI: 10.2307/3090591 https://www.jstor.org/stable/3090591
Green, L. (n.d.) Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans. Ferris State University. Retrieved August 21st 2019 from https://www.ferris.edu/htmls/news/jimcrow/links/essays/vcu.htm