Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tintin au Congo

Fascinating. I found these images in a New York Times article via Racialicious. The story's main focus was library censorship based on patron complaints. Especially difficult is the idea of pulling out books for racist content. Most literature was written in the context of a racist society. Most literature can be critiqued and criticized for racist and sexist content. But are children's books different? Children are impressionable and might not understand that children's books from 50 or 100 years ago were written in a certain context that should be kept in mind when read. Maybe they just shouldn't be read by children? This is similar to my previous post on Babar the Elephant.

I found these accompanying illustrations the most interesting aspect of the article. Tintin au Congo has already been banished to the backrooms of New York libraries, available only upon request. But, curiously, the author Hergé Moulinsart had already tried to mitigate the offensive elements of his book back in the 1940's:

"This classroom scene in “Tintin au Congo” initially had Tintin teaching the natives about their colonial rulers in Belgium."

"When preparing the color version of the story in 1946, Tintin’s creator, Herg
é, turned the classroom scene from a lesson in geopolitics into a lesson on math."

** So instead of telling the students "Today I'm going to talk to you about your country: Belgium." he asks them "What it 2+2?" Much less political. Belgium wasn't their country.

"Two Africans spot Tintin’s ship as it approaches Africa in this scene, as originally drawn, but Herge has them speak French in a local patois similar to pidgin English."

"Later revisions of the scene changed their clothes but also made their French less degrading."

Artwork: Hergé Moulinsart

But Moulinsart didn't do enough, did he? In the classroon scene, he gives one more boy a shirt in the color version, but still there are two students in class without shirts on. Why not give all the students shirts? And still, Tintin's dog scowls at the students, complaining about their chatting. In children's stories, what dog sympathizes with the adult over the children?

The colonialist's dog.

How do we deal with colonialism in children's literature? Through these stories Africa filled the imaginations of many people. But the authors and the first readers of these stories were living in a context of colonialism that our children should no longer be living in. These books are interesting for understanding colonial attitudes about Africa, but not for teaching children about an Africa that actually exists.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Alive in Joburg: District 9

I just saw this movie yesterday with my husband. I really wanted to see it mostly because it takes place in South Africa- and really, what better place to set science fiction movie that is really about human/race relations?

Above is a short film that was made a few years ago, maybe as a run up before the film. The aliens in the movie look different, but it's interesting in its own right.

The premise is that 20 years ago a spaceship stopped over Joburg and the aliens inside were taken in as refugees. Their refugee camp became known as District 9, and looks pretty much like the actual townships that surround Joburg. The aliens are treated a less-than humans. So obviously the filmakers are drawing connections with South Africa's past. I've seen other reviews that complain that the movie doesn't even mention the word Apartheid. And it's true that if the spaceship really appear 20 years before, that it would be interesting to know how the Apartheid government might have dealt with this fictional problem. (I doubt they would have put up with refugee camps for aliens at all.)

But what if this movie isn't about Apartheid at all? What if it is about the more recent issue of xenophobia in the townships, not between blacks and whites but between native South Africans and immigrants from elsewhere in Africa, especially Mozambique, Zimbabwe, the Congo. Though this short film was made three years ago and the actual film was at least alive in concept before the events of last year, certainly the violence errupted after years of tension. It's as if this film predicted what might happen.

The aliens in the film are dreadful to look at. They are dipicted as onry, with eating habits designed to make us recoil: raw meat and cat food. So, even though they are treated horribly by humans, they make us uncomfortable. It can make you agree with the humans who say they want the aliens to live far away from the city- and that is a scary way to feel when you realize the aliens are supposed to symbolize actual people. The movie could have done a much better job giving us more aliens with names and personalities, and more than just one character with any intelligence or ambition to improve his situation. From what I can tell, there are no female aliens, they are all very masculine - I felt the one alien wearing a bra was doing so ironically.

Even so, I think it was an interesting technique, to make the aliens unlikable. The point, to me, was that we don't have to
like the refugees in our care. We don't have to enjoy their company or appreciate their culture- it doesn't matter how we feel about refugees. It doesn't matter if they are grateful to us or if they hate us. What matters is how we treat them. To treat them poorly is to lose our own humanity. By the end of the film, the archetypal South Africa mercencary is just as ugly and dirty and animalistic in his efforts to kill the main character as the aliens appear in the first scenes of the film.