Can Tintin be a racist?
In India recently I sought refuge from raving traffic in a large Chennai bookshop. Delight at discovering an extensive department of children's books quickly turned to dismay. Stacks of Tintin in the Congo stared at me from every angle of a centrepiece display.
How could they be selling a book with such demeaning stereotypes of Africans? I asked the manager and read him the small print. First published in 1930, revised in 1946, when India was itself still under colonial rule.
"We're selling them as collector's items," he said, pointing to bright yellow stickers. "But they will be given to children," I replied. "Like sweets with poison."
I was speaking from experience. As a white child in South Africa, I grew up with books in which black characters were savages or servants or comic buffoons. Animals were frequently portrayed as more intelligent than black people, who were "animalised". It takes a lot of work to untangle racialised ways of seeing that operate both above and below consciousness.
In most bookshops that I visited in India, Tintin in the Congo appeared to be the only book set in Africa. The story of the Congo epitomises the legacy of imperial brutality, savagery and human greed. Read Mark Twain's King Leopold's Soliloquy if you have the stomach, or my book published for children by Puffin, Making it Home: Real-life Stories from Children Forced to Flee, which includes stories from Congolese children today. A simply told history reminds us that about 10 million people were killed under Belgian rule. Indeed Belgium has now apologised for assassinating Patrice Lumumba, the first Congolese Prime Minister after independence.
The single useful place for Herge's book is when teaching about colonialism. How was it that millions of people in Europe were brought up accepting themselves as part of a "master race", willing to see atrocities committed in their name?
Literature both reflects and shapes the moral and intellectual environment in which we live. Visual imagery is particularly potent. Young master Tintin, in his topi, taking charge of seemingly clueless adult Africans might delight the young reader's imagination, but how can one ignore the racist arrogance? We would be outraged if there were children's books on sale today that perpetuated the Nazi stereotyping of Jewish people as rats.
I doubt if our outrage would be dismissed as political correctness.
Tintin in the Congo was brought back into print in September 2005 in what appears to be a global promotion in 38 languages. A mealy-mouthed little note at the beginning, instead of mentioning racism, refers to Herge's "bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period - an interpretation that some readers may find offensive".
I am not a book banner. Some of my own books were banned in apartheid South Africa, including my little Journey to Jo'burg, now 21 years old and a Collins Modern Classic. However, we have a responsibility in how we use our freedom. I believe Egmont, respected for its many fine UK authors, has been wrong to make what I suspect was a purely commercial decision on Tintin in the Congo.
The decision also indicts us and our political climate. We have slid back into complacency. In the 1970s and 1980s, vigorous debates began to prise open an all-too-cosy children's book world. How could discussions about "quality" ignore stereotyping and misrepresentation? Whose stories, whose worlds were readers invited to enter? I was part of that work among teachers, librarians and parents and saw it wiped away as funding priorities changed in the 1990s.
We urgently need to reinvigorate those debates. It won't do to say: "But we said this 20 years ago!"
In June, the Arts Council will host a conference on Diversity in Children's Publishing. At the recent Your World, My World conference at the Institute of Education in London, Ann Lazim revealed how few books take children into an Arab world without misrepresentation. In Denmark, a children's author insists that the Prophet Muhammad must be illustrated in his book. He knows this will disturb many Muslims, but asserts his intention is to promote "integration". Little did he know what a tinderbox he was lighting.
Beverley Naidoo's novel Web of Lies (Puffin) is shortlisted for the Angus Book Award. The Great Tug of War (Frances Lincoln) is to be published later this month.