Holy Mackerel and Blistering Barnacles! Intrepid boy reporter Tintin is under attack. Recently honored in Belgium and soon to become a Spielberg franchise, the byliner turned video and radio star is now being held accountable for his exploits in the Congo. Tintin in the Congo has been denounced by Britain’s independent but government sponsored Commission for Racial Equality as “racist claptrap.” Some booksellers have responded to such claims by moving the comic to the adult graphic novel section.
Tintin, it should be recalled, forged an interracial friendship during his adventures in Tibet (which I hope to be experiencing in the Old Vic stage production later this year) and fought against ethnic stereotyping while retrieving the Castafiore Emerald. Still, the much revised Tintin in the Congo—which dates back to the time when Amos ‘n’ Andy were on the American wireless, Josephine Baker wore bananas, and Al Jolson cried for his “Mammy”—might tell a different story altogether.
I revisited Hergé’s depiction of what Nigger of the “Narcissus” author Joseph Conrad called the Heart of Darkness to debate with myself whether the book’s read-at-your-own-risk label (“an interpretation that some of today’s readers may find offensive”) should suffice or whether Tintin ought to be canned.
Tintin in the Congo is an imperialist, colonial adventure story; but its hero does not come to conquer a continent. He is merely there to see and capture it in his reports. Along the way, he gets into some terrible scrapes, kills a few wild animals, and saves a few natives (or is saved by them). Sure, the Africa visited by Tintin is a caricature, its inhabitants grotesque. So, for that matter, are the white villains, American gangsters with ties to Al Capone.
Is Tintin in the Congo a story likely to turn its readers into Lynx and Lamb (you know, the white supremacist teen-duo known as Prussian Blue)? Should it be going the way of Enid Blyton’s Three Golliwogs (Golly, Woggie, and Nigger), an un(re)publishable book by a bestselling author? I don’t know what is worse: xenophobia or revisionism, yesterday’s blackface or the whitewashings of the present.