Back when physical bookstores were everywhere, I thought they were the greatest place in the world. Right by where I’d take piano lessons, I’d go to the University Avenue Borders Bookstore in Palo Alto every single Saturday afternoon. When I was seven and eight, I’d sprint through the entrance, up the stairs, and straight to read my favorite comic series of all time: The Adventures of Tintin.
I would spend hours reading the stories of the explorer Tintin, his dog Snowy, and all of his friends traveling through the world, stopping evil, and having fun while doing so. Every week, I’d beg my parents to buy me another Tintin comic. I never knew whether my parents would be in a good mood but I asked every single week, hoping I’d get to expand my collection. Eventually, over a year or so, I got every single story and had read through each of the 23 installments dozens of times. Every year for two or three years after I got them all (around 2008–2009), I’d revisit them and reminisce about the fun that I had enjoying the comics, seeing the world with my favorite characters.
Earlier this week, I was doing some self-reflecting and thinking about how I have been conditioned to think about the world that made myself hold racist attitudes whether implicitly or explicitly. Then, almost instantly, it for the first time sunk into me that my favorite comic as a child was egregiously racist and pro-colonialist.
Every single Black person depicted in the series, whether in America or Africa, is drawn with pitch-black skin, bright red lips, and exaggerated features. They’re written as people who were unable to communicate with the white characters, and they were written as though they were incapable of taking care of themselves. There are other racist depictions elsewhere of people of different races, but I just am thinking about the comic “Tintin in the Congo,” the most disturbing depictions. I know that he spoke about things more progressively than others in his time, whether his discussion of the treatment of Native Americans and doing more work to learn from cultures as he continued to write the series. I understand that people claim that Georges Remi, who created the series under the pen name Herge, had a significant impact on cartoons and art in the decades since. I am aware of all of that. And yet, as a Black person, I’m just now realizing what I was reading was terrible.
As I read through the comics as a kid, I never thought of myself being of the same heritage or place of the people I was reading about. I knew racism was bad, and I knew racist Black caricatures were bad as well. However, I never put it all together until now. I just consumed the comics in the abstract, never tying it to what I saw as unjust and hateful depictions of people that looked like me. That comes from a place of privilege, but also the experiences I had going through school as almost always the only Black student in my classrooms. I never was taught in school about anything nuanced about the civil rights movement in any way until my incredible APUSH teacher shared the stories of Frederick Douglass after emancipation and reconstruction, matching my self-studying of abolitionist movements. It’s ridiculous to expect a ten-year-old to understand race with significant nuance, and maybe I’m just thinking out loud on this, but it’s just interesting to re-look at what I saw in my childhood as just deeply problematic.
But, what my parents gave to me was the chance to see me and my brother in the stories of Black inventors, of Black people accomplishing firsts of any kind in the world. We’d go to a Black-owned book store in SF frequently, and I’d just get to learn about how amazing it is to be Black. Although those memories may be less vivid than those reading Tintin, it is those experiences and the interactions my mom tells me about now that are the ones that were able to truly shape who I am today. I was fortunate enough to be reminded every day by my parents that I should always be proud to be Black, and no matter how people attempted to treat me as an “other” because my parents immigrated here, I need to learn about not just my Ethiopian and Eritrean heritage, but the history of Black Americans and the lineage of abolitionist leaders that I want to continue today. I will never deny my privileges growing up because of the resources I had, but I’m challenging myself every single day to remind myself to reflect on my own conscious biases and write about how we all can grow from our past experiences.
I don’t regret reading Tintin as a kid. It helped spark my passion for embracing other people and got me to learn more about history beyond the comics. But I also can recognize the issues of the comic (the ludicrous part of Tintin being Belgium and criticizing people in the Congo will always irk me) and why it was wrong. I don’t have any real conclusion about what I’m going to do with this sort of thought vomit, but I am glad I’m mature enough and more conscious of how the experiences I have had as a kid translate into my behavior today. I’m working now to make sure that this awareness will enable me to take substantive action after this.
Being Noah Tesfaye #139: Revisiting my Favorite Childhood Comic Series
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