Usually it’s hysterical patrons calling for censorship, but librarians at Brooklyn’s central library have enraged book lovers worldwide by yanking a seventy-nine-year-old children’s book off its shelves.
The problem? People say TinTin Au Congo, the second book in the Belgian TinTin graphic novel series for kids, is racist.
That part isn’t in dispute – the book does indeed display the African peoples on TinTin’s trip to the Congo with exaggerated features (ie. huge lips) and “stupid” native beliefs. No one is arguing that’s acceptable – in fact a recent talk about the appropriateness of TinTin today featured heavily on discussing the historical context of all of the TinTin books (Congo, in particular, appeared from 1930 into 1931 as a serialized comic in a Belgian newspaper).
The library’s director told CBS News, “We felt that it wasn’t appropriate for a general children’s collection because of the stereotypical depictions of Africans.”
Hence it’s been whisked away to a locked room, where it’s available only by appointment. And how many children do you know who are going to make an appointment to read TinTin? What’s more, it’s not been made clear exactly who determines how any appointment works – can kids make one?
Racism in children’s and teen literature is nothing new. Ever heard of Huck Finn? Yet another historical novel?
But as Michael Meyers, head of the New York Civil Rights Coalition (who happens to be black) pointed out in a well thought out piece in the NY Daily News this weekend, “We shouldn’t try to hide unpleasant truths from our children. It is historical fact that white racialists colonized Africa, and that explorers and even missionaries thought of black Africans as primitive savages in need of civilizing.”
What’s racist by today’s standards was mere fact of the times in which these books were written. And teaching kids to ignore history calls to mind that old quote about what happens when we ignore the past: we’re condemned to repeat it. Whitewashing away the ugly parts of world history, when the white man gleefully opressed the black man does not fix it. Nor does it teach our kids why those actions were so very wrong.
Just as teachers continue to dose out chapters of Anne Frank’s diary to their students, so must we share books in the home that explore past wrongs of the world so our children can learn from Mom or Dad the harsh realities of the world and how to act.
It’s not up to librarians to act in loco parentis, determining what our children can and cannot be exposed to. It’s ours. We’re supposed to walk into a library with our children, to examine the books they’re checking out and determine whether we think we need to sit down and read them together or allow them to devour the texts on their own. A librarian’s job put them on the front line of protecting our American right to free speech – and with that comes the ability to open a world to our kids.
Writer Herge himself often expressed sorrow over the depictions of Africans in his books, revising them over the years in an attempt to update the heavily dated material. That little fact is particularly appropriate to share with our kids as we read through TinTin’s adventures (provided we can access them) – the concept of mistakes made, mistakes regretted and the ability to change one’s core beliefs.
The librarians in Brooklyn have made a mistake. Will they regret it?