Racist Portrayals of Congolese People in Popular Culture

It’s much easier to exploit people when they are not considered equal, or even human. Here are three examples among thousands that help illuminate the mentality of European and American consumers who may not have thought twice about the exploitation of Congolese people, given the prevailing attitudes of the time.

Example One: Tintin in the Congo

Reflecting broad European sentiment toward African people during the colonial era (1800s through the mid-1900s), the Belgian cartoonist Herge authored a very popular comic book in the 1930s called Tintin in the Congo.  The series aimed to create a positive face for the Belgian colonization of Congo, but did so in a way that was very demeaning and racist.

In the comic series, Tintin, a young Belgian journalist, goes to report on Congo with his dog Snowy.  While there, they encounter a series of challenges, including having to face wild animals, angry Congolese, and Al Capone’s diamond smuggling representatives in the Congo.  Illustrative of the racist nature in which Congolese people were portrayed, in one scene a Congolese woman bows down before Tintin, proclaiming, “White man very great.  White mister is big juju man!”[1]

Here is a sample of how the cartoon portrayed Congolese men:


It wasn’t until the late 1900s that the racism of the comic series became more widely condemned, along with its endorsement of the destruction of African wildlife.  The author Herge came to regret the series as a result of this controversy.  Herge himself said, “For the Congo, the fact was that I was fed on the prejudices of the bourgeois society in which I moved… It was 1930.  I only knew things about these countries that people said at the time:  ‘Africans were great big children…. Thank goodness for them that we were there!’ Etc. And I portrayed these Africans according to such criteria, in the purely paternalistic spirit which existed then in Belgium.”[3]

In a study of the comic by ‘Tintinologist’ Jean-Marie Apostolides, Tintin is meant to represent Belgium and the progress achieved under colonialism, providing a model for the Congolese to imitate in order to become more European and thus more civilized in Belgian eyes, but rather ended up as parodies.[4]

The book later became embroiled in controversy in both the UK and U.S., eventually being removed from children’s sections of bookstores in the UK and being locked in a special room in the Brooklyn Public Library with appointment-only access.  Court cases against the book were filed in Belgium and Sweden but ultimately did not succeed in getting the book banned for its racist content.[5] 


Example Two: Ota Benga in the Bronx Zoo

 (AUTHORS’ NOTE: The widely used term “pygmy” can be pejorative, with loaded meanings.  The term is used to describe members of ethnic groups that are particularly diminutive. This section of the book website draws heavily from Pamela Newkirk’s book Spectacle, which we highly recommend. This section only scratches the surface of this incredibly painful saga, but Pamela’s book provides critical context.)

The story of Ota Benga, a young Congolese who was brought to the U.S. in the early 1900s to be put on display at the World’s Fair and later in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo, graphically illustrates many of the themes of this book.  With the backdrop of the brutal colonial exploitation of Congo, and in the aftermath of transatlantic slavery in the U.S., there was a widely perceived and even accepted orthodoxy of the superiority of the white race.  In this particular case, people profited from “proving” the inferiority of Africans, and Ota Benga’s saga perpetuated and provided space for racist theories that were considered mainstream at the time and continue to percolate even today.

There were books in the late 1800s and early 1900s like Charles Carroll’s The Negro a Beast and Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman which portrayed Africans as part animal, prone to anger.  There was speculation that Ota perhaps was the “missing link” between man and ape.[6]  A respected Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz, argued that blacks were a different species, a “degraded and degenerated race.”[7]  The Bronx Zoo’s cofounder, Madison Grant, wrote The Passing of the Great Race, a book which called for removing “inferior races” from America over time through mass sterilization and other methods.  Hitler was deeply impressed with Grant’s work, often quoting him and reportedly writing a letter to Grant saying that “the book is my Bible.”[8]

The New York Times wrote a series of racist articles, noting how similar Ota and an orangutan appeared to be: “Both grin in the same way when pleased.”  The Times doubled down on this line of thought:  “Whether they [Benga and his people] are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit….  Pygmies are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him.”[9] The Minneapolis Tribune used a photograph of Ota and a monkey, asserting, “He is about as near an approach to the missing link as any human species yet found.”[10]  And no less an authority than Scientific American asserted Ota and others from his group “evidence an intelligence of an extremely low order.”[11]

Ota became an overnight sensation in America when he was put on exhibit in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, his companions at times being an orangutan, a chimpanzee, and a parrot. Ota was displayed in a metal cage in the Monkey House, wearing a coat and white trousers.  The exhibit broke attendance records for the zoo.  Newkirk writes, “Benga became the object of pointing fingers, audible gasps, and bellowing laughter…. For the twenty-five cent admission fee and a five-cent ride on the subway, they could see what until now they had only read about: a genuine African ‘savage.’”  The zookeeper “cheerily referred to him as ‘the little African savage’ and insisted that Benga ‘has one of the best rooms in the primate house,’” and he soon had bones displayed in the cage “to suggest cannibalism.”[12]

A week into his stay at the zoo, the zookeeper let Ota begin roaming the zoo grounds.  The New York Times reported that crowds followed him everywhere, “howling, jeering and yelling.”[13]

African American pastors organized against Ota’s degrading treatment.  Leaders included Reverend Dr. Matthew Gilbert of Mount Olivet Baptist Church in New York and Reverend James Gordon, also a Baptist minister.  Reverend Gordon explained, “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with apes.  We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”[14] Reverend Gilbert wrote to the New York Times, “Only prejudice against the negro race made such a thing possible in this country.”[15]

But this wasn’t Ota’s first public humiliation.

Samuel Verner, a self-described explorer, told many very different stories of how he came to bring Ota back with him to the U.S.  The St. Louis World’s Fair had commissioned him to go to Africa to bring back so-called pygmies.  He alternatively claimed to have saved Ota from “cannibalistic savages” that had captured him, negotiated his passage to America with Ota’s village chief, and freed him from the troops of the Belgian occupying force.  Verner also frequently changed the story of how old Ota was, variously listing him in different forums as being 10, 17, and 22 when Ota first came to America.[16]  In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Pamela Newkirk wrote about Verner, “In dozens of accounts — including one in a Virginia encyclopedia — the man most responsible for [Ota’s] exploitation was absurdly depicted as his friend.”[17]

Verner delivered Ota to the organizers of the World’s Fair, which that year commemorated the Louisiana Purchase and American military conquests in Asia and South America.  A subtext of what some of the organizers seemed to be trying to demonstrate was the superiority of the white race.  The Fair organizers exhibited Ota and other Congolese as well as Native Americans, Filipinos, and Japanese, which were “intended to highlight the United States’ conquests, imperialism, and progress.”[18]

The Congolese were described in pejorative terms by the press of the day and reported to be cannibals.  The reality is that Ota’s sharpened teeth were common in his region, resulting from a cosmetic procedure called tooth-chipping.  When the St. Louis temperatures dropped into the autumn and early winter, Ota and his group were dressed only in loincloths and would retreat into their huts, only to be driven out by “angry spectators (who) bombarded their quarters with bricks or rocks.”[19]

Returning to Ota’s Bronx Zoo ordeal, a month after his internment in the zoo, Ota finally was released, and ended up in a respected orphanage called the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn, run by the African-American Baptists led by Reverend Gordon.[20]  Ota eventually moved to Lynchburg, Virginia as a guest of the Virginia Theological Seminary, where he lived with the African-American family running the institution.

Within a few years, though, his desire to go home intensified, and he turned inward and noticeably more somber.  Eventually, in March 2016, overcome with sadness and certain he would never get back home because of the difficulties of trans-Atlantic travel due to World War I, he shot himself through the heart.[21]

In one of the obituaries, an unidentified friend of Ota’s recalled that Ota claimed he had been captured by an Englishman in Congo when he was around 13.  That would have made him around 15 years old when he was displayed in the Bronx Zoo Monkey Cage, and 25 when he ended his life.[22]

Ota’s story has inspired many in recent years, including artists, poets, filmmakers, and human rights advocates,[23] and a historical marker was recently erected in Virginia commemorating his life.  Back in Congo, ethnic groups comprising the so-called pygmy population remain some of the poorest and most discriminated-against people in the country.[24]

In her Washington Post op-ed, Newkirk drew parallels with Ota’s story to current issues in America:  “Benga’s life continues to offer lessons for us today. A century later, behind the mass incarceration and senseless police killings of black and brown boys and men, we might detect the same kind of crude stereotyping that served to dehumanize Ota Benga. We might also draw parallels between the ways national leaders disparaged Africans and the ways some deride immigrants today.”


Example Three: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

One eyewitness to the mayhem wrought by the plunder of Congo’s ivory left behind a lasting legacy.  The book Heart of Darkness emerged not from Joseph Conrad’s imagination, but as a result of months of plying the Congo River as a steamboat officer, where Conrad observed the devastating ivory poaching carried out by Belgian officials and their Congolese forces.  Eight years after his experience in the Congo at the height of the ivory craze, Conrad wrote his famous short novel, one of the best-selling pieces of fiction of all time, in which he described “the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”[25]  Adam Hochschild reminds us, “European and American readers, not comfortable acknowledging the genocidal scale of the killing in Africa at the turn of the century, have cast Heart of Darkness loose from its historical moorings.  We read it as a parable for all times and places, not as a book about one time and place. Two of the three times the story was filmed, most notably in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, it was not even set in Africa…. What is notable is how precise and detailed a description it is of the “actual facts of the case.’”[26]

The writer Michela Wrong points out a misperception of Conrad’s novella: “The ‘darkness’ of the book’s title refers to the monstrous passions at the core of the human soul, lying ready to emerge when man’s better instincts are suspended, rather than a continent’s supposed predisposition to violence.  Conrad was more preoccupied with rotten Western values, the white man’s inhumanity to the black man, than, as is almost always assumed today, black savagery.”[27]

The book itself has been condemned by many as racist in its portrayal of African people even while it elucidates the horrors of the pursuit of ivory.  The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe crafts perhaps the most compelling repudiation of the book and its author: “Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked. …  Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.”

Achebe continues later in his essay, “I am talking about a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.”  Achebe concludes with this: “But the victims of racist slander who for centuries have had to live with the inhumanity it makes them heir to have always known better than any casual visitor even when he comes loaded with the gifts of a Conrad.”[28]