Earlier today news about a Swedish library's plans to shelve Tintin, the children's comic book series, spread on Twitter like wildfire. Within seconds #Tintingate was the top trending topic in Sweden as many enraged Swedes took to the micro blogging site to vent their frustrations.
At the heart of all this Twitterrage was what many perceived as censorship of freedom of speech and many wouldn't stand for it. The artistic director of the youth department, Behrang Miri, at the Kulturhuset youth library in Stockholm said the reason was because "the images the Tintin books give of Africans is Afro-phobic", continuing to explain that in the books "Africans are a bit dumb, while Arabs sit on flying carpets and Turks smoke water pipes".
There is something about that little funny haired kid, running around reporting on worlds far away that rubs people the wrong way.
Growing up in a French speaking country with ties to Belgium, Georges 'Hergé' Remi, Tintin's author's country, I never thought his adventures or the portrayal of the people he met were in any way racist. However, I grew up in Africa surrounded by Africans and I knew us not to be as "backward" as often depicted by the author.
Funny enough I recently attended a talk, "Changing the Headlines: Reporting Africa Differently?", arranged by the Royal African Society, about the challenges faced by mainstream media on how Africa is reported and Tintin's portrayal of Africans was mentioned as an example of how western media think, see and report on Africa, based on what literature was, still is, available to many people, especially those who write and talk about a whole continent as a one entity.
I want to make it perfectly clear that I am in no way, shape or form claiming racism to be over. I live with it and see it every single day, but how is censoring literature going to help combat it? Granted, we, as consumers, are often affected by images and stories we see in the media or movies, but my stern belief has always been that the responsibility of how and what our children grow up to be lies mostly with the parents. Outside elements will have a hard time penetrating if the foundation of respect, equality and tolerance has been well laid from infantry.
Censoring Tintin books deprives our children the chance and ability to learn to be critical, independent and able to think for themselves. We have to teach them that they are living in a complex world and it's our duty to teach them how to meet and handle those complexities. Censorship is only a temporary solution and will only teach them to avoid anything they don't like. Then what happens when they go out in to the world and find out jobs are hard to find? What happens when they find it hard to fight for their rights when faced with adversity? What will we then be left with?
Instead of putting a kibosh on that rascal kid journalist and his adventures, let us look at how we can best use these images, and others, to illustrate and explain the complexity of colonialism, slavery and oppression in a wider context. Putting a lid on something doesn't mean the problem is gone, it just means we are leaving it to brew and building for a disaster.
Maybe I'm naive, but I'm glad the powers that be had a change of heart and that Kulturhuset in the nordic capital will continue to have Tintin books because I would hope that we are teaching our children that as a society, we aren't shying away from a painful, dark and twisted past, we are facing it head-first and learning from it as we go.
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