This HBO – Gone with the Wind thing is nothing new. Ten yers ago, I watched the dismissal of a case brought against Tintin, the cartoon character, for «racism».
“I accuse Tintin of racism”!… with this “I accuse” borrowed from the famous Dreyfus case which marked the history of modern fight against racism, a Congolese citizen living in Belgium, Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo (pictured), has tried in 2010 to obtain the interdiction of one of the most famous comic-strip books in Western European culture: The Adventures of Tintin in the Congo.
The setting of this scene, which seems itself out of a comic-strip book, was the main Brussels tribunal, where Mr. Mondondo launched his complaint and where a judge finally decided there were no grounds for accepting it. This was no light matter for Belgium, where Tintin is one of the most revered national figures, more so than his creator, Georges Rémi, the self-taught cartoonist whose pen name was Hergé (a pun on his initials) and who in his late life had to admit that Tintin’s first adventures were indeed larded with racist clichés and colonialist asides. The dubious scenes and episodes were later expurgated from the succeeding editions, but they figure still on the pages of the original albums published in the 1930s, as well as in collector editions.
To those who accused Mr. Mondondo himself of trying to set up an easy publicity stunt, his lawyer Papis Tshimpangila (himself of Congolese origin) answered then that in the UK Tintin in the Congo has been selling for years with a band of paper around the outside making clear the content is offensive. Inside the British edition that Mr. Mondondo brought as evidence for the court to consider, a warning notes that it features “bourgeois, paternalistic stereotypes of the period — an interpretation some readers may find offensive”. At the very least, the plaintiff and his legal team wanted such a warning note to be inserted in all French-language editions and that the album be rather classified as „adult literature” and, as such, not sold to under 16s.
To this, Alain Berenboom, the lawyer for the Moulinsart society, which owns the rights to the Tintin albums, replied that a verdict which would classify Tintin as „racist propaganda” would lead to banning large tracts of the world literature, „starting with the Bible, which can be read as an extremely shocking collection of texts.” Asking for a band of paper, a wrapping, or a warning note is in itself a gesture of censorship. „There is no warning to the reader on the novels of Marquis de Sade, which teenagers can buy freely in bookshops. Books are not like cigarette packs”, said Mr. Berenboom.
Beyond its anecdotic side, the whole case brought then again into light the ambiguity of Belgium’s relationship with its former colony, Congo. It took Belgium an exceptionally long time to accept the atrocious side of its colonial past in central Africa. The Belgian ruling of Congo, first under the status of personal property of King Leopold II, then as a direct Belgian colony, was so appalling that it horrified even other colonial powers. Belgium apologised to the people of the Congo only in 2002 for its role in the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first legally elected prime minister of Congo, but not for its support of Joseph Mobutu’s dictatorship. Monuments to the „civilising” mission of Belgium in Africa still adorn the capital, Brussels, some of them in the vicinity of the European Institutions, while the oversized Palais de Justice itself, near which the case is presented in court today, was built by King Leopold II with funds coming from treasures looted from Congo.
Still, legions of „tintinophiles” were waiting, tense, to see whether judge Carine Van Damme, who during the preliminary hearings proved to dispose of a solid sense of humour, would take the unprecedented step of indicting a fictional character who, instead of being assimilated with one of late King Leopold’s henchmen, would rather deserve to remain in the company of Kim, Tom Sawyer and the like.
The case was dismissed on 28 May, 2010, but it was a forewarning for what was to come.