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Andrew Grant-Thomas: My adventures with ‘Tintin’ at Amherst’s Jones Library

  • A panel from "Tintin in the Congo."

    A panel from "Tintin in the Congo."

  • A panel from "Tintin in the Congo."

    A panel from "Tintin in the Congo."

  • A panel from "Tintin in the Congo."
  • A panel from "Tintin in the Congo."

In the worst of the series, “Tintin in the Congo,” the black Congolese characters are presented as childlike imbeciles who worship white people and look like monkeys. Similarly derogatory portrayals of Asians, Jews, and other groups appear in the books as well. Better, we thought, to place such books in a location where young children, like my 5-year-old daughter, are less likely to pluck them from a shelf. Placing them in the young adult area would leave Tintin readily available to kids while underscoring the need for parents to supervise their engagement with the books. Public libraries in Ashby, Greenfield, Heath, Monson, and Southbridge, among others, do exactly that.

The director of the library and, later, its board of trustees, refused to make the move. They countered that the series was intended for children and that relocating the books would be tantamount to censorship. The fact that the library already practices such “censorship” through its use of age-appropriate book sections made little impression on these caretakers. Nor did the fact that ‘Tintin’ is indeed a young adult book according to the one firm criterion for age- appropriateness the director provided — namely, the age of its lead character. Tintin’s creator, Hergé, identified him as a 14- to 19-year-old boy.

So why are the “Adventures of Tintin” often regarded as children’s books? I suspect it’s because, 80 years ago, a Belgian newspaper commissioned them for its children’s supplement. Some people have followed suit ever since. Happily, times have changed and cultural mores with them. Is it reasonable to ask the public library to apply clear criteria that reflect 21st century U.S.

sensibilities to its decisions about age-appropriateness, rather than cling to a judgment made in a very different place and time? I think so.

Make no mistake: As long as we distinguish between children’s, young adult and adult materials, someone will decide which is which. The key questions before us are: Who will make the decision, on the basis of what criteria, and with what degree of transparency?

I entered the meeting with the library trustees hoping together we might identify a way forward that resolved the tension between a principled support for the “freedom to read” and a commonsense agreement that little kids are not the first, best audience for ‘Tintin.’ In that, I was disappointed. However, I did walk away with renewed appreciation for the value of diversity among decision-makers, especially in our public institutions.

In our meeting, the library was represented, to all appearances, by six white trustees and four white staff members. They said the issue we raised was a serious one and thanked us for bringing it to their attention. They took their charge seriously. However, I believe a board that included people of color might well have reached a different conclusion.

Why? Because for nonwhite board members, the victims of a doctrinaire “freedom to read” stance might well have been their children, nieces, nephews or grandchildren. A nonwhite board member might have imagined her child taking in demeaning depictions of people who look like him. The inclusion of those voices at the board table might have generated a richer discussion, one that didn’t sidestep the real harm such books can do to children with facile references to “teachable moments.” It is not coincidental that those of us who spoke to the board all have kids of color. Do we care about censorship? Yes! We also care for the welfare of our children.

Of course, white adults, like those who represented the library that day, can love children who are not white or not their own. But most white parents have children who will identify with Tintin, whereas most non-white parents have children more likely to identify with the people of color the book depicts so unfavorably. It is not merely reasonable that decision-makers in public life reflect their constituents’ perspectives and sensibilities.

My adventures with Tintin suggest that fairness requires no less.

Andrew Grant-Thomas lives in Amherst.

Related

‘Tintin’ comics to remain in Amherst library children’s room despite parents’ objections

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

AMHERST — A graphic novel series containing racial stereotypes that some parents argue is inappropriate for pre-teens will not be removed from the children’s area at the Jones Library as a group has requested. But library officials are pledging to be part of a community dialogue focused on racial issues and to better inform the public about the children’s room … 8

Judith Eiseman: Help kids be kids a little longer

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

I think Andrew Grant-Thomas has the situation just about right in the Friday guest column (“My adventures with ‘Tintin’ ”). I have been following the story about the controversy over these old books, but seeing the illustration and its caption made it clear: Protecting children is not censorship. A picture is worth a thousand words and the more I think about …

Comments
Legacy Comments25

Some people continue to make their case against moving the Tin-Tin books from the children's section by saying "Well then what about Tom Sawyer" or the Bible or the "Little Houses" series? But those books are already not housed in the children's section, so they are making the point for the position the say they oppose, it seems to me. And, all of the books NOT in the children's section, such as the "Little House" series and the Bible, ARE available and accessible to young children whose parents allow them to peruse sections outside of the children's section. Categorizing books appropriately actually increases parent's ability do their jobs, and to "talk with their kids" about the issues and to use books as "a teachable moment".

Perhaps you might consider adding the "Little House" books to that list? There are plenty of references to "darkies" and the "redskins" talk in a creepy broken english that's so fake. I enjoyed Tintin immensely as a child and my kids (6 and 9) love the books too. I talk with them frankly and openly about the racist sections and they get it.

My bad -- very bad -- on assuming Mr. Grant-Thomas's skin color incorrectly. Other than that, my comments stand.

Well, that's interesting! Guy writes an article, identifies himself as father of a kid of color, and you first assumed that he was a 'white liberal.' Why is that? I'm truly curious.

Well, that's a very curious mistake to make.

The (liberal) White Man's Burden: Deciding for the rest of us benighted fools which material might be offensive or, to up the moral stakes, racist. Mr. Grant-Thomas has made the appropriate choice on behalf of his daughter. The rest of us might choose differently, or might not believe (as I do not) that a momentary engagement with such images will forever doom our offspring to lives of race hatred. Isn't it interesting how the fearful impulse to censor exists on both the left and right? Most of us, I suspect, would prefer to let our own judgment be the guide for ourselves and our children.

I think at its core this is about how we respect very young people. Does respecting very young people mean exposing them to racist characterizations alone? No. Very young people need adults to make choices that expose them to the challenges of our world at the right time in a thoughtful way in the presence of a caring adult. We should no more leave young children to encounter these materials on their own than we should ask them to take the bus alone or use the oven alone. This isn't disrespect. It's acknowledging that very young people are in a very different place developmentally than their caretakers. Adults should not congratulate themselves on "opposing censorship" when what they are really doing is abandoning young people to face racist characterizations that they are not prepared to process or understand.

Amen!

Moving materials in order to block or restrict access is censorship. If the library makes this move, what else should we relocated to the young adult section? Then, which books should we move from the young adult section to the adult section? Should we get rid of books about kids that have two moms, or parents of different races? Or, any book that features any section that could be considered scary or unpleasant to a child? Or, any book that reflects portions of history and on-going reality about challenges and problems in our society? Free speech applies all the time, even if sometimes it is things we don't want to hear. Just because kids read it doesn't mean that they will think it is okay or true. I also think it is wrong that for the author to assume librarians of color would necessarily rule the way he wants them to instead of being individuals who may or may not see this differently than he does. http://ncac.org/Myths-of-Banned-Books-Week

I don't understand how moving a book to an area where it will be grouped alongside a different series of books than those which they are grouped now is "restricting access." It's still accessible to anyone who walks into the library, it's just handing out with a different set of books. But as long as we're playing Devil's advocate, what is the valuable lesson that a 5-year old who does not have the level of discernment that an older kid might get from Tintin in the Congo? What are we depriving children is the book is shelved in such a way that implies that older children are better-prepared to make sense of racist representation of Africa from the 1930s? People who are constantly finding "slippery slopes" are not giving themselves or anyone else enough credit as people who can make common sense distinctions. Put the snow tires on your brain and get a little traction on the situation!

The point of moving the book as stated in the editorial is so that kids will not find them while browsing. Moving a book aimed at child out of the children's section to some other part of a two story library is effectively hiding it. If a child reads this book they might find Tintin's adventures entertaining and leave it at that. Or, they might also ask questions about why people are being depicted the way they are in the book (as racist caricatures), which will lead to conversation with the parent about racism, and why it is not okay. Claiming my initial post is a "slippery slope" would imply that I took possible follow-up actions to one proposed action to a ridiculous end (i.e. if raising the minimum wage to $10 is a good idea, why not raise it $300?). To the contrary, the reasons I gave as justifications to move books are all lifted from recent demands to move books to other sections in libraries around the country - they are not far-fetched. I'm sure the Jones Library has already fielded and denied moving other books in its collection for some of the reasons I listed.

Again, to equate "not find[ing] them while browsing" and "effectively hiding it" to censorship or even as "restricting" is a stretch. We "effectively hide" all sorts of material from the children's section, and I think that if it applies to explicit sexuality and violence, it can also apply to racist imagery that was acceptable in the 1930s but is not acceptable today. Think of all the minstrel and blackface imagery in Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny cartoons that were still aired in the 1980s, and that have been removed since then. And by saying that you were making a "slippery slope" argument, I was arguing against that knee-jerk reaction that something as simple as moving books to a different section is equivalent and / or inevitably sets the precedent for more pernicious forms of censorship. It frankly, it just blows my mind that anyone who looks at the way the Africans are depicted in Tintin in Congo can convince themselves that that placing those images among literature for little kids is a battle worth fighting. I have my own issue with the tone of some of the arguments being made about moving the books to another section, but the ardent defense of this specific book by so many people is skeeving me out.

The Merriam Webster dictionary of censor is: "a person who examines books, movies, letters, etc., and removes things that are considered to be offensive, immoral, harmful to society, etc.". To move a children's book to a place where a child is not going to find it because of its content fits that definition. I think that the book and it's depictions are horribly racist and offensive. But, what is the right age that kids should grow up to before they start questioning racism in our society? When should they start thinking about privilege and history? Should we teach that Columbus is a hero, Santa is real, and racism doesn't exist and expect kids to just all of sudden get it at a particular age? How do people think we get a world here ~70% of whites think that racism is over because Obama is President? They are taught about an idealized world as a child. I'm surprised that anybody who associates themselves with progressive causes would argue for censorship. There is no "good" or "bad" censorship, it either is practiced or it is not. With regards to looney toons - here is Whoopi Goldberg's intro to the DVD of the blackface and otherwise offensive Looney Toons cartoon where she argues a similar point. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HCT1clqci3I This song from south pacific is also appropriate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnY-Ft7F9eo

I think we need a little perspective here. At the Brooklyn public library, Tintin in Congo is kept under lock and key. Dozens of libraries in the U.S. and Europe exclude it altogether. So if you want to consider the act of moving Tintin in Congo to a different part of the library to be "censorship," it is a pretty soft kind of censorship. Also, as was pointed out earlier, by certain definitions, even having a children’s and young adult section is already censorship. Unless you are arguing that the act of moving something from one section to another is radically different from placing it in one section or the other at the time that it’s acquired, your argument is sort of moot. And, frankly, if you are arguing that moving a book to a different section is inherently “bad,” censorship you are assuming that standards for what is appropriate children’s reading should not change, which is unrealistic. But at least I recognize that you are trying to make this argument from what—to me—seems like a doctrinaire position on free access. But that’s not where a lot of the pushback is coming from, and this is what concerns me. I think this conversation has been tinted by the aftertaste of the peanut ban. The same sort of rhetoric about elitist minorities imposing their will seems to be in play for a lot of the commentators. The resentments get stirred up, it seems like Western Massachusetts society will fall apart without buckets of peanut butter on demand and racist cartoons for toddlers. I tend to get a little worried when so many adults suddenly become very invested in granting 5-year-olds access to “horribly racist and offensive” images that I really don’t think those kids can process in a useful way. We tend to read our own little culture wars as just the same basic struggle playing out again and again. But this is not the same as the case of PC pandering run amok as, say, banning Shokazoba from playing at Hampshire. That was just ridiculous and embarrassing. I think the parents have a legitimate concern here. Also, though I find Whoopi Goldberg to be funny, I really don’t care what her take is on this. I have had discussions of this issue with plenty of parents of young kids, and I appreciate where Andre Grant-Thomas is coming from.

I had trouble sleeping, so I looked at pbohamp’s Whoopi Goldberg video. And it proves the common-sense point that many people have tried to make. This is a common sense point that seems to be lost on those who seem to think that moving Tintin in Congo out of the children’s lit section is an aberrant act of political correctness run amok. The Goldberg video that pbohamp links is appended to the “Golden collection” release. After the third volume, the tapes in that release indicate that it is “intended for adults” and “may not be suitable for children.” What Whoopie Goldberg states here is exactly the kind of discussion that is appropriate for the young adult section of a library, and I think is something that any sensible person would probably agree with. But how do you make the leap from the reasonable claim that racist elements of these videos are a historical record that should be available to mature viewers to assuming that these subtleties would be intelligible to very young kids? Especially when the texts that they find aren’t prefaced by a disclaimer by Ms. Goldberg or anyone else?

Thank you for articulating your position on this critical topic. While censorship is abhorrent, filing books in age appropriate locations is simply acknowledging children's developmental stages. Based on this description, it seems reasonable to place it in the adolescent section where it can be accessed by young people who (with adult supervision) are able to engage in meaningful critical analysis. I also second Linda's comments. Books like this impact everyone, regardless of racial heritage. (And yes... I'm lucky enough to have a racially diversified family.) While I don't doubt that the library attempted to take a principled stand, I hope they reconsider and decide each case on its merits, rather than trying to establish a wide reaching precedent with this case.

It's worth noting the Jones Library is not establishing precedent here. They are following guidelines set for libraries throughout the country more than 40 years ago, "Children and young adults unquestionably possess First Amendment rights, including the right to receive information through the library in print, nonprint, or digital format. Constitutionally protected speech cannot be suppressed solely to protect children or young adults from ideas or images a legislative body believes to be unsuitable for them.1 Librarians and library governing bodies should not resort to age restrictions in an effort to avoid actual or anticipated objections, because only a court of law can determine whether material is not constitutionally protected. Adopted June 30, 1972, by the ALA Council; amended July 1, 1981; July 3, 1991; June 30, 2004; and July 2, 2008." http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/freeaccesslibraries

Again, what is the legal definition of "age restriction" here? Is it the same as grouping in the young adult section? Also, as far as establishing precedent, the author seems to imply that libraries at "Ashby, Greenfield, Heath, Monson, and Southbridge, among others," make similar use of the young adult section. I am actually a lot more sympathetic to the parents who wanted the books now than I was when the whole kerfuffle started. I don't think it's the parents that wanted the books moved overreacting in this case.

You are correct that age restriction as used in this language does not apply to this case. On further research, age restriction seems to more so apply to whether somebody of any age is allowed to access or check out or view materials. Instead, the "freedom to read" mentioned in the article covers ALA's stance on this issue. (LINK: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/statementspols/freedomreadstatement). This statement is a bit older, originally published in 1953.

You didn't get your way, so you insinuate the library board is racist? The race card has become such an adolescent mode of arguement. Is your 5-year-old brousing the library without your supervision? How about you take some responsibility for what your 5-year-old picks up. And don't exploit your child as a reason for imposing your biases on the rest of the world. Take the responsibility for raising your own child and forget about the "it takes a village" nonsense. So maybe the book is more appropriate for young adults, but I think if it was in the young adults section you'd still have a problem with its racist stereotyping and still claim it's age inappropriate; you'd still be accusing the board members of racism. But YOU need to remember, there is a good reason why literature has its sacredness and is afforded protections - because it is a short, fast slippery slope to censorship. You need to find your own balance about what's in the best interest of YOUR child without imposing YOUR biases on the rest of the world.

Well put! Five gold stars to the rational human!

The "race card" argument as you call it might be overplayed, but the shrill knee-jerk response of "you are playing the race card" argument is just as adolescent. Books like Tintin in the Congo become controversial in places a lot less "progressive" than Amherst. The idea that shifting them to a different section of the same library is "censorship" is a stretch, no matter what kind of motivation you are imputing to he author of this letter. Look really closely at those pictures, clappmw. Can you imagine someone publishing them in a book made for 5-year-olds today? Many of us grew up with things that wouldn't seem politically correct today, and our nostalgia for them is (hopefullly) about remembering our childhood not about thinking certain people as monkey-like savages. But are these texts really that relevant to small kids today that they ABSOLUTELY NEED to be in the children's section? I appreciate people wanting their kids look beyond hyper-commercial fair like Disney Princesses and purple dinosaurs. But why is grouping Tintin with books that are relevant to 5-year-olds in 2014 a crucial battle for the "sacredness" of literature.

Pasual, you are so far off point I don't know where to begin on reorienting you.

By all means, proceed.

Thank you for this incredibly insightful post. You raise great points and I must say, I totally agree with you on most of them. The one thing I would suggest is that reading books that set up a racial hierarchy, the way especially TinTin in the Congo does, are also harmful for white children, who get ridiculous stereotypes reinforced. I fully support your notion of moving these to the young adult section - it seems like a brilliant compromise.

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