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One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Racist Fish?

On a fine morning of a tranquil Swedish September of 2012, controversy erupted unexpectedly with the publication of a front-page headline in the prestigious daily in the country, Dagens Nyheter, concerning a seemingly inconsequential reshelving of a children’s comic series to the adult section by a towering gentleman of Iranian descent. That man was Behrang Miri, the Cultural Director at Stockholm Culture House, and the book in question was Belgium’s most famous export – Tintin.

Credits: Getty Images

Miri’s reasons for reshelving the Tintin comics were their brazen anti-Black racism and the glorification of the atrocious Belgian occupation of Congo. But how can adventure stories of our beloved, orange-haired, boyish reporter be racist?

As it happens, they are; and the collective nostalgia associated with the comic series makes it not a bit more palatable. Georges Remi, better known by his nom de plume, Hergé, wrote his second comic, Tintin au Congo, to be published in a fascist, right-wing, catholic newspaper’s children’s supplement, Le Petit Vingtième. It is the most ostensibly racist of all comics in the Tintin series. The illustrations of the Congolese people presented in the book are affront caricatures. Tintin comes to Africa as a Jesus-figure to salvage and “civilise” the Africans. (There are depictions of the natives literally worshipping the white boy!) The Congolese haven’t been deemed worthy of a natural human complexion, and rather they have been made to wear a flagrant blackface at all times. They have been infantilised to show how desperately the Congolese need to be colonised by Belgium. This controversy – adorably baptised ‘Tintin-gate‘ – points towards an insidiously deep-rooted problem of racial prejudices in children’s literature.

This problem of racism is not exclusive to the Belgian comic series; many other classics of children’s literature are besmirched by it. Dr. Suess‘s bow-tied, white-gloved Cat in the Hat largely relies on the traditions of blackface minstrelsy for inspiration. (Dr. Suess is also infamous for his cartoons vilifying Japanese Americans as traitors to the USA during WWII.) Dahl’s Oompa Loompas, who are the slaves of Willy Wonka, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were originally depicted as African pygmies. Doyle’s gifted detective, Sherlock Holmes, in The Adventure of the Three Gables, feels the unnecessary urge to tell a former slave, Steve Dixie, that he doesn’t like the smell of him. The dark-skinned, long-bearded, crescent-flagged, orange-turbanned ‘Calormenes‘ in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia are an evil race (read Turks), who can only be redeemed when they renounce their religion of worshipping a Satanic figure, who requires sacrifices. The blackface wearing ‘Golliwogs’ in Enid Blyton’s Noddy are cheats, liars, and criminals who steal Noddy’s car. The black children in Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi in the South Seas worship the eponymous white orphan girl. The story of re-reading your favourite books from childhood is a story of disenchantment which doesn’t spare even the Indian experience unscathed.

Credits: Unknown

About half a century ago, disappointed with the lack of knowledge among Indian children of the Hindu mythology, a Junior Executive at Times of India, Anant Pai, started the Immortal Illustrated Stories – better known as Amar Chitra Katha. This was the first major indigenous comic book series, which started innocuously to educate children about India’s past: both its history and mythology (it is debatable whether the pioneers of the series made any real distinction between the two); it unfortunately also promulgated an extremely problematic conception of the immortal Indian. It promoted a view that an Indian identity correspondent to the modern Indian one has always existed since time immemorial, and was under constant attacks by “foreign invaders”. Most of Pai’s “good” characters are fair-skinned, upper caste, Hindu men, while “the bad guys” are almost always large-jawed, buck toothed, green clad (sometimes even pronouncedly Muslim) savage invaders. In Pai’s comics we see not a marginalisation but an active villainisation of Muslims. It was a breaking away from the secular, plural Nehruvian India of the 60s towards the communal India of the 70s and the 80s.

Credits: Twitter

Lawrence A Babb and Susan Wadley, in their book, Media and the Transformation of Religion in South Asia, note that there are no Maulana Azad, Asif Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan, or Dr. Zakir Hussain in Pai’s Makers of Modern India series. It took a surprisingly long amount of time for even Gandhi to get his own issue, but V. D. Savarkar gets his one fairly early on. ACK is prone to oversimplification of history to such hilarious extents that in one of the comics, Aurangzeb is depicted as forever sitting on a prayer mat ridiculously chanting, “Kill all Hindus!“. Pretty much the same image of a Muslim is found in ACK’s all historical comics. Muslim armies are a ruthless green horde monstrously looting, pillaging, killing, converting, and annihilating everything in sight. This deliberate dilution and violent battery of any nuanced approach towards history is criminal, especially as the contemporary communal tensions were stoked.

These kinds of seemingly harmless prejudices that so insidiously creep into children’s culture seek to ingrain that bias in the child’s impressionable psyche. Normalisations of such bigotries are not at all a trivial matter; they relay a signal to the child-reader that these social behaviours are okay. The child may unconsciously absorb the notion that Africans are indeed uncivilised brutes, and Muslims are indeed rapacious barbarians they are portrayed to be. These prejudices need to be highlighted and examined. We, as a society, need to question if the books our children are reading are suitable for them or not.

With the rise in the right-wing governments all over the globe, the beast of racism surreptitiously pops up its ugly head. The present day world is always in the danger of all the progresses made by the social justice movements in the past century being undone. We are always in the impending danger of being pushed back by decades, socially. In such conditions, we need to be extremely critical of prejudices in all spheres of life. The battle against hatred, in the words of Arundhati Roy, “must be militantly waged – and beautifully won.”

Umar Farooque Shaikh is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Varda Ahmad

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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