The Commission for Racial Equality has said that Hergé’s Tintin in the Congo, first published in 1931, depicts ‘hideous racial prejudice’. The comment came after a member of the public who came across the strip cartoon book in a branch of Borders complained: ‘I was aghast to see page after page of representations of black African people as baboons or monkeys, bowing before a white teenager and speaking like retarded children.’
Hergé would have agreed. After the publication of Tintin in the Congo a radical change occurred in his views when he was introduced to a young Chinese sculptor, Chang Chong-jen, in 1934. Chang Chong-jen, who was studying at the University of Leuven, introduced Hergé to Chinese art, history and culture. Hergé’s perception of the world and its peoples changed to the point where he gave The Blue Lotus (set in China) a strong anti-imperialist message (at the time Japan was advancing into China). From that point on Hergé tried to depict other countries accurately. He was to say of Tintin in the Congo:
‘It happened that I was nourished by the prejudices of the bourgeois environment in which I lived… It was 1930, I didn’t know anything about this country (the Congo) except what people said about it at the time: Africans are big children, it’s lucky we are there! Etc. And I drew them, these Africans, according to those criteria in the pure spirit of paternalism which was prevalent at the time in Belgium.’
But should Tintin in the Congo be removed from sale? Hergé’s personal and thereby artistic development is fascinating to cultural historians. It also demonstrates the power of education to challenge stereotypical thinking. However, the question remains. Out of print for many years (presumably because the publisher at that time deemed the depiction of black people unacceptable) the book was reissued in 2005 with a foreword explaining the racial attitudes prevalent at the time in the West. This presupposes that young readers who love Tintin (7-year-olds and upwards) will not only read the foreword but will then be capable of placing the racial stereotypes in the context of their time. This is a very tall order and not a solution in our society where black children can still experience the devastating impact of racism.
The new Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, has hit the ground running with a lively programme and ambitious aims for his laureateship which focuses primarily on poetry. In this issue of BfK we publish the first of Michael’s Laureate Logs, in which he reports on his action packed schedule.