Should we ban Babar?
I have been keeping my head down for the last few days since the story broke. But I have to confess that I belong to one of those politically dubious households who actually own a copy of the infamous Tintin in the Congo, which the Commission for Racial Equality thinks is only fit for “a museum, with a big sign saying ‘old-fashioned racist clap-trap’”.
And I have read it, which -- I suspect -- is rather more than many of those sounding off about its virtues and vices have done.
In mitigation I would claim that it was not used to pollute the minds of the very young In fact, we bought it quite recently, at the behest of the daughter was doing an A level History project on Leopold and the Congo. So in a way we were using it as the kind of museum piece that the CRE would allow.
But it is now lodged on my shelves next to couple of books that our kids did read and enjoy when very young, but which look – on the CRE principle -- as if they could be next in the line of fire. The Story of Babar and Babar the King are, as several critics have already pointed out, potentially dangerous and racist tracts. Cute as he may appear, Babar is worse than an unwitting and unreconstructed colonialist: his blacks are all silly “savages”, targets of ridicule with no positive valuation at all; and his apparently utopian foundation of Celesteville is riven by class and gender discrimination, not to mention bearing a passing resemblance to Leopold’s Leopoldville.
Surely it’s the next kids’ classic in the line of fire?
This post isn’t going to turn into a rant about the thought police. There isn’t anyone sensible who advocates total free speech or who wouldn’t want to censor some children’s literature. Let’s imagine an everyday story of a Ku Klux Klan family, which unequivocally celebrates the great time they all had torching a black ghetto. “Well done, sonny, we got ‘em…”. I can’t imagine that we’d want that in the junior section of the local library.
But that’s not what we’re talking about.
Nor is it clear that providing children with an unmitigated diet of ethically sound literature is a good way to build the anti-racists of the future. You need a bit of practice in thinking about what racism might mean and look like on the page. Literature is about dialogue, wondering, anger and contestation – not just about imbibing positive moral messages. You might see it a bit like vaccination. You need to taste a bit of the disease (in safe form) to be able to fight it later.
Not to mention the disservice that this policing does to history. If we want kids to understand that, and how, the past was different – and we spend a lot of media time complaining that they don’t – then we need to let them explore the differences for themselves. It’s no good just whiting out what the historical attitudes we don’t like.
Sooner or later we’ll be banning the myth of Pandora on the grounds that it promotes a negative image of women.