When I was growing up in Lebanon I and everyone I knew read the Adventures of Tintin, the Belgian comic book about a 16-year-old reporter who travels the world with his dog Milou (terribly translated as “Snowy”), never files a single story, never so much as flirts with either sex, let alone with sex–he’s as androgynous as his expressions–but manages all sorts of fabulous exploits.
Tintin was Jules Verne in comic strips, taking us to America, to the moon, to the world of the Incas, to Tibet or to Africa. Like Jules Verne, the books could also be astoundingly blind to their own racism. Hergé, was drawing for a conservative, Catholic newspaper when he wrote “Tintin in the Congo” in 1931. The newspaper had commissioned him first to write a satire of the Soviet Union for children, which he did. His new production seemed aimed at showing off Belgian colonialism in the Congo to good little Sunday-school Belgians, what we now know to be one of the most brutal and genocidal examples of European exploitation of Africans.
The resulting book was not much different. Every page is a stereotype. Blacks are dim-witted, big-lipped, subservient. Whites, Tintin and his very white dog among them, are the saviors. There’s no subtlety here. The priest with a white beard is good to the core–Belgium was very, very proud of raping the Congo while bringing its Ave Marias to the natives–the criminal who disguises himself as a priest has a black beard.
Like many of Jules Verne’s books, Tintin in the Congo is also a hymn to animal cruelty. The hunter Dick Kennedy in Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon, Verne’s breakaway hit, must be the first character in literature to anticipate Sara Palin’s affection for massacring animals from the air as he fires a shot at a hippo from his balloon basket just for the hell of it. When the bullet has no effect, the servant Joe says in all naturalness, “we should’ve harpooned him.” In one scene in Congo Tintin obliterates a herd of antelope. In another he kills a monkey and skins it because he needed its hide to disguise himself. He does the same with a giraffe, so he can get a better close-up of other giraffes for his “documentary.” Crocodiles, lions, serpents, elephants (of course Tinton scavenges the ivory tusks), leopards are all attacked in a fireworks-like crescendo of violence. It culminates with Tintin drilling a hole in the back of a rhinoceros, placing a stick of dynamite in there, and blowing up the poor creature. A frame shows the creature’s remains. Tintin is disappointed: he has nothing on film.
Blacks are not treated more kindly. But they love their Christ-like savior. The last frame of the book is of a village of natives literally bowing at the foot of totems of Tintin and Milou and speaking of him as a god. Kurtz for kids. “To think that in Europe, all the little Whites are like Tintin,” says one bereft man to another outside a café. (Oh, yes, in Hergé’s style book, “White” was capitalized.) Praise be the white colonialist.
Yet I must’ve read that book a thousand times. The French writer Marguerite Duras was right: “All children of the civilized world have a Tintin culture before having their own.” And what a shame that it was, regarding certain books. It’s probably why it was so easy for me, in my early teens, not to question my elders’ dehumanization of Muslims and Palestinians in those early years of the civil war. We may have had an excuse to despise them. They were trying to obliterate us (us good little white Christians). They’d chased us out of our home. But we’d been dehumanizing them long before the war. Attitudes have consequences.
I still have an early edition of Tintin au Congo, from which the image above was scanned, but I don’t mind the way it’s been scrubbed of its racist and violent content, if too barely so. English and American publishers wouldn’t issue it for decades. Scandinavian publishers forced Hergé to redraw the rhinoceros scene so the dynamite stick never went off and the beast could walk away (though somehow they found other stereotypes less offensive). Don’t get me wrong: the enormous majority of what Hergé drew and wrote was wonderful. Some of it was not. He grew as he aged, and as he moved away from that reactionary broadsheet he worked for. There’s nothing wrong with a little reevaluation now and then, and a recognition that not every line and every frame deserves praise, or reissues.
So I don’t mind it at all that the estate of Dr. Seuss has finally realized that some of the great children’s writer’s earlier books were more like Tintin in the Congo than the sort of culture you’d want your children eating up like green eggs and ham. The estate is pulling six Seuss books from republication. Naturally, the shitshow culture of talk radio and social mierda is losing its mulberries, even though we’re talking about just six out of 60 titles, and six titles that were barely selling anyway, because readers, who know best, had become uncomfortable with the insensitivity of those pages.
One of those was what became Theodor Geisel-Seuss’s first production, “And To Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” a story too metaphorically themed around eyelids: the eyelids white little Marco’s father tells him to keep up and “see what you can see.” The story turns into a wonderful celebration of the imagination, until the appearance of a Chinese man and his stereotypically slanted eyelids. You might not consider that dehumanizing. Even if it isn’t, it’s a stereotype, and stereotypes are indistinguishable from the demeaning. To reimagine Marco’s fantasy with wizened eyes, I could see children reading that book their thousand times starting in 1937, when the book was first published, and going on never to question their elders, just as I did not in 1975, when 1942 rolled around and 120,000 Japanese-Americans, most of them citizens, many of them readers of Dr. Seuss no doubt, were imprisoned in concentration camps in one of this nation’s mass-endorsed hysterias of systematic, unjustified and inexcusable racism.
If the Seuss estate has now finally decided to pull that book not from circulation, mind you, not from libraries, not from wide availability, but merely from reprints, then big fracking deal. What next: faulting writers for routinely choosing not to include some of their lesser works in complete editions?
This isn’t about cancel culture. That pair of terms has become its own dogmatic dumbbell anyway. It’s thrown at anything and everything that appears to wound the sensibilities of reactionaries who still like their bigotry enshrined in their nostalgia for the good old days when whites dominated and defined culture.
Sure the leveling can be excessive. Not everything about critical race theory is worth embracing. But a lot of it is. Unlike Marco’s parade of animals, microaggressions and white privilege aren’t imaginary nothings. Like all academic theories, critical race theory is highly debatable, it’s being debated, and we’re the better for it. That kind of leveling is overdue. The Dr. Seuss controversy is bogus, or at least reflective of the very blindness to multicultural sensitivity that the Declaration of Independence imagined even when it was a whites-only, men-only document.
There’s no need to condemn an artist’s work that was of its time, let alone condemn the artist’s oeuvre just because it contains a few false notes: Shakespeare and Voltaire could be anti-Semitic. John Locke, the Enlightenment’s patron saint of tolerance, owned stock in slave-trading companies and was an apologist for the repression of Catholics and atheists. Every European romantic intellectual of the 19th century was an orientalist fool. Twain and Flannery O’Connor were bigoted against Blacks and foreigners, and O’Connor didn’t see much redemption for anyone not Catholic. Henry James was an unbearable classist and father to a long line of American misogynists from Hemingway to Saul Bellow to John Updike. None of that eliminates these writers’ place in the cultural pantheon even if in some cases it might diminish them. The challenge is ours to reread and rethink. Every day in art is a day of judgment, every reader a judge. It’s how we reinterpret, how we grow.
Our misplaced nostalgia for books we were so fond of isn’t more important than the golden rule of looking out for our neighbors, to whom the same nostalgia translates as insult or put-down. There was nothing excessive in Maya Angelou’s embrace of the word “humankind” at the 1993 presidential inauguration, a word that even then was derided as politically correct, but that spoke of a culture finally discovering a humanism it had too often posited in hymns to itself and pledges to inert flags but not realized among its fellow citizens of flesh and blood. Remember those Angelou lines “On the Pulse of Morning”?
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today.
You can hear Leaves of Grass rustling again in those lines, photosynthesized into an America more becoming of its ideal. How wonderful it would have been that Dr. Seuss’s parade on Mulberry Street had featured those verses come to life, without the stereotypes. No doubt I’m describing a children’s writer’s work who’s done just that since. It’s not a sin to edit culture. It doesn’t erase history. It corrects the stories to come, usually in such modest ways, honoring the culture more than defacing it, as stereotypes so viciously do.
You might recall that the Oompa Loompas of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” weren’t always Oompa Loompas. They were once offensively stereotypical Black pygmies, until the NAACP complained and author Roald Dahl realized his error. No one would trade those Oompa Loompas for anything today. Just the same, Dr. Seuss will survive this long-overdue editing of his legacy, for the better. And so will you.