Thursday, April 19, 2012

White man very great. White mister is big juju man

Jack Dikian
April 2012

Isn’t synchronicity a wonderful thing. I find myself chatting with a lady at a conference who tells me her husband is planning to take a trip to the Congo. Wanting to seem like I have some semblance of a sense of humor I pipe up recalling how Tintin went to the Congo all those years ago. Almost on the same day we hear about how, in the cartoon star's home country of Belgium some are pushing for the book to be banned.

The book, published by Egmont, is now sold in Britain with a protective band around it, warning that its portrayal of Africans as wide-eyed simpletons would offend some readers. L'Osservatore Romano, a newspaper, which generally reflects the view of the Vatican, asks whether the act of censorship – on the grounds that the comic is racist is politically correct lunacy.

I must say, when I first read the book years ago, I remember, also how much I was taken back by the very naïve, crude racial stereotypes and prejudice the second book in the series portrayed.

Consider for example, a black woman is featured in the book bowing before Tintin (the boy) and exclaiming, "White man very great. White mister is big juju man!" And sure, the book is full of the paternalistic clichés of the era in which the Belgians exploited the Congo. Certainly, The Congo does portray nonwhite people in a less than flattering (if not patently offensive) light.

And I suppose it is very much the case of the clichés of the era. Herge, in the 1930s, reflects the values prevalent in Europe between the wars, providing some historical context. L'Osservatore Romano does make the point very well that Tintin, in all of the series, was driven by "a sacred moral imperative – to save the innocent and conquer evil." And, "He challenges the arrogance of the powerful, the venality of colonisers, he protects the weak and the oppressed," in many ways very much similar to the ideals of a close friend.

And just as a by the way, it seems the Tintin series are full of coincidences. Here are just a few.

In the 1943 Secret of the Unicorn Tintin goes to the market where he meets Thomson and Thompson who are investigating a spate of thefts by pickpockets. Tintin spots the model Unicorn and decides to buy it for Captain Haddock. Just then not one, but two other people try to buy it. After fending off these other buyers, Tintin presents the ship to Captain Haddock who immediately recognises it as a model belonging to his ancestor.

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