Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tintin au Congo: It's Racist, but should it be pulled from library shelves?

Racism = Bad. Books = Good. Books that are Racist = Hidden?

So in yesterday's NY Times City Room, there was this fascinating article talking about how sometimes a library will basically HIDE a book from its patrons, to avoid offending anyone accidentally.

The example was the undeniably racist second Tintin book, which even the author, Hergé, toned down in later editions. (You can click here and scroll down to the bottom to see the different versions!)

The book in question, "Tintin au Congo," now has to be specially requested, and there's a waiting period - something that curiously, there isn't really for buying and taking home something like, uh, a gun.

But that's another issue entirely.

What fascinated me was that when the article was discussing challenges to books in school libraries, this "solution" to the issue came up again and again. Like here:

“The Million Dollar Kick,” Dan Gutman’s tale of a young soccer player, will stay in the librarian’s office at Hassler Elementary School in Klein, Tex., until the parents who objected to it no longer have children at the school, according to the civil liberties group.

Okay, so they're basically HIDING the books that might offend?


Instead of hiding the books, isn't this where the filter of a parent or teacher or librarian is supposed to jump in? Isn't the ubiquity of the racism in "Tintin Au Congo" a "teachable moment" for an adult to have with a child?

And what really steams me about "The Million Dollar Kick" example above is that because the book offended one parent, EVERY other kid and parent during those school years that the offended parent's children are in that school are denied the chance to read it, as it hides away in the librarian's office!

Maybe the issue isn't that kids aren't able to handle these books and their content. Maybe it's that we as adults aren't willing to be the interpreters for them. We're too lazy or scared to help the kids understand the issues behind the offensiveness.

I guess it's kind of like asking if Nazis should have free speech rights.

I'm not talking about incitement to violence speech, but that stupid Aryan-race-being-better-crap. If we disallow their freedoms, isn't it a slippery slope until our own freedoms collapse as well?

And yet, I remain troubled. Without an interpreter, would reading the racist content of "Tintin au Congo" make a child accept those stereotypes about people from Africa? And what about the Black child who stumbles upon the book, and it's effect on their own self-image?

What would YOU do? Would "Tintin au Congo" find a place in the regular shelves of YOUR library?

What would be YOUR solution to this book challenge?

Let me know!




Sara W.E. said...

First of all, the picture of this 'secret vault' is _so_ great:)

I feel like you go to the heart of the matter here. Without someone there to interpret a questionable book to a child, what would the effect be? Would they internalize the illustrations?

It seems like separating the books in some way to ensure that a dialogue goes with the book is a decent idea. I wonder if this is possible without 'hiding' them. Like the parent check-out only idea in article. BUT...

Where does this stop? How old does a child get before they can interpret on their own? 8? 12? 18? Whose values are we upholding? Mine? Yours? The parents? As you said it's a slippery slope.

It seems so strange to be standing in the 'censor's shoes.' Let me tell you, they aren't very comfortable.

susan said...

I'd keep it in general circulation but for more mature readers. Given how dated the work is and the representation in it, I don't think children could fully grasp what it is.

I'd put in graphic novels.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I grew up reading and loving the Tintin books and I'm now reading them with my own son. There are many redeeming qualities about the books, but also many things that are difficult about them. But rather than censor them, I think some warning is needed. Parents should be reading these with their children and talking about them. But I agree with Sara W. E. that even warnings are a slippery slope and I'm glad I'm not the one to have to draw the line. I've got a longer and more nuanced response to this in a blog post I wrote in response to a very similar article that ran in the Times two years ago. You can read it here.

pussreboots said...

Tintin au Congo is available in my library. It is shelved with the other graphic novels and comics in the children's section. The library has a wide diversity of books about different cultures so it's one voice among many.

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

Harriet, I couldn't get your link to your blog post to work. But I agree that some sort of notice would be useful. Maybe like in Powells, where there's a little note under the book on the shelf, saying it's been recommended by a staff member, or something like that? But Sara is right, it is a slippery slope!

Tobias said...

I tend to think kids are smarter than they give them credit for. I read all sorts of "inappropriate" books when I was young, but none of them overruled the critical thinking skills I was taught at school.

I remember being very confused when a middle school teacher told me I couldn't give a report on Huck Finn because some parents thought the book was racist. My reasoning was that while there was some offensive language, the entire point of the story was Huck realising that popular ideas aren't always ethical.

The same can be said of any book with questionable content. As long as children are taught to question ideas and think for themselves one book isn't going to cause irreparable damage. Now, teaching children that books are scary things that should be carefully monitored, that's harmful.

Andrea -- Just One More Book!! Podcast said...

I guess this would mostly apply to 1) children's chapter books or 2)else picture books in school libraries only. Unless people let young picture-book aged children go to the public library on their own?

I agree totally that interpretation and discussion is the key and I wouldn't want my girls to read this stuff without me there to indoctrinate them with my own views on the subject.

Before our girls could read we constantly edited on the fly, removing and replacing words, skipping whole sentences/pages, and even changing characters sexes etc.

Once our girls were old enough to learn from the out-datedness of a book, it made for great discussion. We can read all the civil rights books on earth, but actually being exposed to a racist book really puts things in perspective.

I guess this gets right back to Terry's readingTub post, "A Question of Character". You can draw a masterpiece with a pencil and you can take out an eye with a pencil, it's not the book itself, it's what you do with it.

Do we abandon our children once they learn to read, or do we read along with and aloud to them? Do we cover the whole range of topics and situations so they have an appropriate context for their eventual independent reading?

Maybe we need a
"Friends don't let friends read alone" to encourage parents to keep in their children's reading loops.

Jackie Parker said...

Ours is in the children's fiction section. And currently checked out.

Keri said...

As someone with no sentimental attachment to the Tin Tin books, I think the NY Public Library made the right call in moving the book but the wrong call how they handled the interaction with the patron which is why this is such a controversy.

I am a librarian and I buy loads of controversial books for my collection. I am a young adult librarian and many of these books are written for teens and are appropriate for most teen readers. I am a fervent anti-censorship supporter and have resisted the (thankfully) few requests patrons have made about books in my collection.

But the library cannot house all books. Decisions have to be made. Sometimes books are past their prime. You have to ask what value the book is adding to your collection. In this case, the Tin Tin book is primarily of historical importance. Its depictions are dated (I use that term as the kindest word I can muster in this situation). It's not a book that kids are going to pick up on their own and want to read. It's a book parents may want to read with their children if they have fond memories of reading it as a child, but then arguably the audience is the adult reader.

When you have a dated, offensive book, usually you throw it out. When you have a dated, offensive book with some significance, you keep it for its historical or artistic importance. The New York Public Library thought the book had historical importance and was worthy of keeping but fit more in line with the goal of their scholarly, historical children's book collection than with their circulating popular materials collection. There is nothing wrong with this. It is wonderful that they have such a resource and can keep books of scholarly importance in a way that most other public libraries cannot.

The problem is not that the collection is kept under lock and key (expensive, important stuff is in there) but that the NYPL doesn't have the funding to have that area staffed all the time so there isn't always way to access these books. That's the tragedy in this situation.

JennBailey said...

I'm a believer in the Teachable Moment, but not when you have to explain there is a teachable moment. One of my favorite picture books growing up was Little Black Sambo. I didn't see racial inappropriateness in that book. I just saw pancakes made from tigers and it made me hungry. I was 4. Do we burden 4-year olds with racial guilt or talk about the pancakes?

I think as children get older and as their experiences broaden, books like Tintin, Sambo and Huckleberry Finn become more and more important to discuss. Children are able to understand the Teachable Moment and we, as parents and educators better not miss it. I fume when I hear of books like Huck Finn being banned for racism. Of course it's racist. It was written during a time of rampant racism. It is a clear, historical record of how poorly some of us treated others of us. LEARN from it. DISCUSS it and make DARN SURE we aren't currently treating any other group, class, race or sex of citizen in a similar manner. I'm glad some people find it offensive. Heaven help those who don't. I think we should be offended and on a regular basis. Keeps on our toes. If we pretend these stereotypes never happened we'll grow lax in what we should guard against.

Wow, Lee. You got me on a soap box. I'll climb down now. Hope I've not offended anyone.

P.S. Don't hide the books.

Nandini said...

Good question ... I loved the Tintin books (which I read growing up in India) but they are undeniably colonial/racist elements in them. It didn't stop me from enjoying them. Hey, we also grew up reading, and enjoying, Rudyard (White Man's Burden) Kipling :-)!

They wrote well. They were wrong about many things. Many people who lived in those times were. We know better. That's what I tell my kids when they read (and they do read) Tintin.

I do wonder if there is a way to grandfather these books from earlier times in with some kind of disclaimer (from the publisher in new editions ... or the library system) putting it in context instead of checking it out with no explanation.

What really upsets me is to see colonial attitudes in new fiction for children. Oh yes, there is ...


Mrs. Bauley said...

Thanks for this blog post. You do, as Sara W.E. said, get the heart of the matter. I don't agree with censorship at all. I think it's part of the problem with our country (avoiding big issues such as racism creates assumptions that it doesn't still exist).

Students need to be taught what's right and wrong and then decide for themselves (guided to find their inner voice). Many profound teachable moments could come from Tintin, but definitely for mature audiences.

I teach a Native American unit to my third graders and definitely feel it's necessary to point out stereotypes in certain books, such as the Sign of the Beaver.

Anyhow, thanks for the food for thought.

Lisa Jenn said...

My library's children's department does collect controversial materials (though "controversial" is a pretty nebulous term, since it seems like *anything* can be controversial if the reader looks hard enough). We don't hide anything per se, but some controversial items do end up in our Parent-Teacher section, which is simply a wall of shelving adjacent to our children's nonfiction -- open access to all.

Most of the books are parenting/teaching guides, but we do keep some fiction over there as well. They tend to be books about sensitive issues such as alcoholism and death and abuse, though some (not all, fortunately, and I'm happy to say the trend is changing...) of our same-gender parent picture books have ended up there as well.

And that's where our old edition of Little Black Sambo is, too -- the one with the original stereotyped illustrations that, when I see them, make me gape with their offensiveness. I confess that I asked to have it moved there from the general picture book area. We have several newer, beautiful, nonracist retellings available for patrons who want the classic story of a boy's encounter with a gang of greedy tigers. And those who want the historical perspective can still have it their way, too.

I do feel a twinge of regret/guilt whenever we relegate a book to the Parent-Teacher section, because it does become a sort of ghetto for "controversial" materials. But as I said: compromise. Better to have it on the shelf and in the catalog, accessible to anyone looking for it, than to have it locked in a closet or not to have it at all. Many of these "controversial" books also end up on our bibliographies, improving accessibility in that way, too.

Chris Tregenza said...

@Keri - I think your analysis is wrong.

If the library, as part of a systematic review of the books, had decided Tintin au Congo was not worth keeping, then your analysis would make sense.

However, it was done on the basis of a single complaint that the artwork depicted black people like monkeys. [ ]

The book was moved because someone did not like the content. That is censorship.

There were any number of different ways available for the library to handle this situation. Short of burning the book, they choose the worse possible one.

The book does contain content offensive to many people but such heavy handed treatment of the issue only makes the problem worse. For an example of this see Tintin on the Front Line of Racism

K L Richardsson said...

It is a sticky subject because a: you don't really want to expose people to ideas in case they stir up a new wave of feelings, but at the same time, you do want to show them, look, this is what happened, let's recognize how it affected our history, and try to prevent it.

And I hate to say it, but it also still smacks of censorship. And I hate -- HATE -- that even books that we now recognize as blatantly racist and occasionally detrimental to society have a right, in my mind, to be shelved. I don't know when I became a giant anti-censorship bozo, but any time people talk of banning or getting rid of or not allowing to be shelved, for any reason, it gets my ire up. Even if a book is potentially damaging to society. Put it in a separate section, a historical reference section. Treat it with care. But don't ignore the idea. That, in turn, gives way to the idea that it's okay to ban, to censor, in the name of whatever ideals we believe in.

James said...

Great discussion you’ve got going on here.

These books do have value simply because they are a part of our history. The same with movies like Birth of a Nation or TV shows like Amos and Andy which depict racist attitudes. Or the beloved 1940s children’s movie, Song of the South which retold the Uncle Remos/Brer Rabbit stories, which are now viewed as racist. (Disney, always wanting to avoid controversy, has withheld Song of the South from distribution for almost 20 years and never released it on DVD).

And therefore the place to shelve these books is in a special history section. That section should have a designation stating that they depict attitudes and beliefs that were accepted at the time of publication but those attitudes have since evolved.

Teachers could use these books to show the evolution of human thought and attitudes. And using these books as teachable moments brings the ideas/concepts alive for students. Of course 2 year olds are too young to understand such things. However, 13, 14, 15 year olds are not. That’s why you use these things as part of a history class.

Embracing our past, warts and all, is the way to teach children. Hiding the books away or even burning them is the surest way for history to repeat itself.

MotherReader said...

Tough question. It made me take a look at what my library system has done with the book. I am actually not surprised to find that it isn't listed - even though we have a lot of Tintin books in the catalog. (Though it does seem to be in the hardcover grouped volumes, which we also have.)

My library system tends to be pretty conservative and to avoid controversy whenever possible. That said, we have stood up to battles to remove materials from the collection.

I always find myself of two minds on these issues. My librarian mind wants to avoid censorship at all costs. My parent mind wants to remove offensive material - but only counting the material as offensive by my standards, not someone else's standards. And really, that's the problem here. Whose standards are going to be applied and to what purpose?

I do think librarians should use some common sense. The Tintin book is reasonably an issue. The Gutman book is obviously not, so hiding it because someone objects to it is cowardly.

Anonymous said...


I have it (not sure which version, though) and it's horrid. I read an interesting thing about it: when Hergé decided, after writting "Congo", to write a Tintin story based in China, a Chinese sculptor named Chang Chong-Chen found out and contacted him to prevent another racist, uninformed book. Hergé ended up writting a beautiful story ("Le lotus bleu")and braking a lot of the prejudices that Europeans had about China at the time (and still have, I'm afraid). Chang Chong-Chen and him became friends, so that later, when said intelectual was persecuted by the Chineses regime, Hergé tried to help him.

Also, there's "Tintin at the soviets", an earlier book (before Congo) that appeared serialized in a right-wing periodical, where Hergé pulls all the steriotypes and prejudices about Soviet Russia. It's pure propaganda and pretty poorly written, at that.

I believe "Congo" deserves to be in the adult section of the library. Franckly, lots of kids check out books on their own and very few parents are aware of what the kids read. I don't think "Congo"'s intrinsic value as a work of art or literature justifies being read by today's kids. It's early Hergé and pretty bad, IMO.

On the other hand, today I was talking to a friend who is reading "King Salomon's mines" to her kids and told me she was appealed at how sexist it is. Most of the "classics" are racist, sexist, clasist, you name it. Those do deserve to be read with commentary, but, let's get real, "Congo" does not.

Oh, and have you read "Tintin in America"? You won't like it, specially if you are Native American.


You can read about htis and so much more at

and about Blue Lotus here:

Harriet M. Welsch said...

If anyone's interested, the real link to my Tintin post is here. Sorry for the broken link above.

Antonio Perales del Hierro said...

Here in my home town of San Francisco the librarians in the children's department at the Main keep it out of sight, but if it is requested one can see it or check it out. I have seen the old Tin Tin, as well as the "new" Tin Tin, and it is still racist, culturally overbearing and condescending. I am also an illustrator and I plan to do a parody of the obnoxious little bugger and his evil-mouthed friends for my 'zine Hate Crime Review, which is in print and on-line also. What should be done about it?...the publisher should acknowlege how anti-social and demonizing it is, and publish a character, perhaps Tin Tin, as a fighter of racism. Euro-centrism is alive and well, and sucks. Case in point: An arguably fascist NATO will "liberate" Libyans? Give me a break!