Brooklyn Public Library Locks up “TinTin Au Congo”

The cover of Hergé's book "Tintin Au Congo"

The cover of Hergé's book "Tintin Au Congo"

The Brooklyn Public Library trusts you to form your own opinions about any  controversial  and provocative content that you would find in Beloved, Hard Candy or Mein Kampf.   However, apparently they feel the need to protect you from racially insensitive material in the cartoon from almost 80 years ago TinTin Au Congo.

The NYTimes today reports that the  Brooklyn Public Library’s Materials Review Committee has decided to remove the book from its shelves.  Chair of the committee, Christine Stenstrom does acknowledge that the book, created by Hergé in 1929, “is of historic interest” and therefore “it will be added to the Hunt Collection of Children’s Literalure, which is located in the Central Library. This is a special collection of historic children’s literature that is available for viewing by appointment only.”

As the Times notes, the Brooklyn Library has actually had a good track record of keeping controversial material.  In their recent record of responses to requests to reconsider library materials, this is the only book they chose to remove from shelves because the review panel found it “racially offensive.”

I have no doubt the cartoon is racially offensive (you can see by the cover).  But will people find it more so than Mein Kampf several other books, films, cartoons and artwork  that would be readily available in Brooklyn Library?  What happens when someone complains about Disney’s 1941 movie Dumbo because of its racially offensive character Jim Crow?  What about Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn which is regularly challenged because it contains the racially offensive word “nigger”?  Can we be trusted to consider those materials in their artistic and historical contexts, if not with “Tintin Au Congo”?

Brooklyn Library has responded respectfully and responsibly to every other challenge of this nature.  In their letters, to complaintants, they have often quoted the ALA’s Diversity in Collection Development which states, “librarians have a professional responsibility to be inclusive, not exclusive…. Access to materials legally obtainable should be assured to the user and policies should not unjustly exclude materials even if offensive to the librarian or user.”

So what makes this book any different – so dangerous that it needs to be locked up?  And now that they’ve removed it, what’s next?  And furthermore, how will they defend any future decisions to keep controversial materials now that they’ve set this disarming precedent?

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9 Responses to Brooklyn Public Library Locks up “TinTin Au Congo”

  1. tardisgrl says:

    My guess is that the decision was taken because Tintin is regarded as children’s literature, and it is often assumed that children do not have the moral filter necessary to read books of an objectionable, yet historical nature. Do you know if the book was originally housed in the Children’s Department?

  2. Zagrobelny says:

    If that’s where it was, I don’t think it should be in the children’s section. They are right when they say it is of primarily historic interest – let’s be honest, no one is going to advocate this, or Song of the South, or Sambo, etc. as good reading for contemporary children.

    Locking it away “by appointment only” is overkill and outrageous, however. Can’t they just put it in the main stacks? Unless this is a rare older copy (perhaps one before Herge made some changes in 1946), they can’t justify that.

  3. Ole says:

    This is Tintin. Most people in the US might not know Tintin – and might have a strange relationship with graphic novels, but something is not necessarily “just for children” just because it has pictures in it. Tintin is for people of all ages – there’s no reason it should be classified as specifically “children’s litterature” – or, for that matter, “just of historical interest”. Tintin is one of the most important pieces of “graphic novel” litterature and is certainly not just of “historical relevance”.

    Yes, this one – one of Herge’s first novels – is certainly “backwards” and expresses strong colonialist views (“benevolent racism” – good white man comes to save the poor ignorant black people against evil white men… yes, it’s still racist, but it’s hardly going to make anyone into a bigot if they are not already). But so? Does that justify censorship? Then let’s get rid of all litterature on Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, John Stuart Mill etc too – lock it up!

    Is historical revisionism and censorship better than honest conversations? Do kids really become “tolerant” and “aware” by lying to them and deleting all accounts of injustices and ignorance from the past (or present)?

    BTW. I’m sick of the ignorant claims that “Huckleberry Finn” is racist. It contains the N-word – because that was a common word in real life! If it didn’t it would not be relevant literature, but bogus. If anyone cared to read the story, they’d find that the runaway slave is portrayed as a human, and that Huck eventually decides he cannot support the “morals” of a slave-system, so he breaks the rules in favor of his sympathies for the human being that his black friend is. This is why a few decades ago the same censorship-loving people in America wanted it banned because it was too “pro-black”!

    You cannot combat racism by acting like the racists and engage in buck-burning. Not only is that historically the method of the most racist people in history, it also strengthens the cause of the racists of today. Do you want to ban Tintin because of it’s ignorant views on Africans? Fine, but then you’re also supporting the claims and the movement of WASPs in our society who wants to ban all your literature.

    Step 1: Get the “anti-racists” to ban Tintin and Huck Finn.
    Step 2: Now that you have their support for censorship in general, it’s your time to ban Malcolm X and Frans Fanon, all literature that portrays homosexuality as something that exists, all “non-christian” literature, everything that portrays interracial relationsships, in short: everything

  4. This is censorship. The fact that it’s done with a sense of moral responsibility doesn’t change the nature of the action. Put the book back on the shelf and let parents decide whether or not it is appropriate for their own children. To do any less is hypocritical and unconstitutional.

  5. Sarah says:

    Compared with the other books mentioned, Mein Kampf is very long (too long to read just in the library) and also a treatise on a (very twisted) political philosophy, not a fiction/storybook. Huckleberry Finn, as mentioned above, is not an actually racist book, and a fine work of literature to boot. It’s also longer than can be consumed in a small time at the reserved books desk. And Dumbo, while the crows are considered racist caricatures, is really a lovely story and very touching. Not that the interpreted “quality” is really necessary to prevent censorship – it’s just that these are very different situations from Tintin.

    I think the important consideration is, what criteria does the Brooklyn Public Library apply to decide which section of the library a book belongs in? Specifically, where was Tintin before, and on what basis have they placed other books in restricted viewing? If this restricted section is to be in existence, Tintin may fit the bill for this type of categorization. The question then becomes whether the restricted section should exist, and/or whether the qualifications for entry should be different (i.e., only old, delicate, or damaged books). Outside the restricted section, perhaps a placement in the adult nonfiction section (under literature) or a graphic novels section might be the most appropriate.

    Overall, it doesn’t seem like a key, slippery slope situation: this doesn’t mark the establishment of their restricted section, and Tintin is widely regarded as an overwhelmingly racist, historical book. I would say that some more specific information is lacking, and it would be nice to have read the book that the article is about.

  6. Something not mentioned in the original NYT article – the book in question was in French ( Tintin Au Congo ) and they had just a single copy. As a contrast, the perfectly acceptable Mein Kampf is in English and there 10 copies on the public display.

  7. Ole says:

    Chris…. if that is true (not that I don’t believe you) then it’s a completely different story. Of course they can take special precautions for a unique item.

  8. Pingback: Brooklyn Public Library Locks up “TinTin Au Congo” « Blogging … | congotoday

  9. This is very interesting. “Tintin au Congo” was first published in 1931 and now, almost eighty years later it is banned.
    An artwork for a certain era should not be judged by today’s standards and “political correctness”. It is a product of its time.

    How did Rubens’es female figures survive the Victorian era?

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