by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem
Mexico’s favorite monkey-boy, Memin Pinguin, may now find an audience in the U.S. That’s because Wal-Mart has decided to carry the reissued comic books series, first released in the 1960s. There’s just one problem. Memin Pinguin isn’t simply a monkey-boy but referred to in the series as a “Negro.”
With that description comes all of the negatives associated with blackness. Other characters, who apparently beat him at various points, regard him as “stupid” and a “troublemaker.” Also of note is that one of the newly released comics includes a storyline about Memin Pinguin running for office, which some believe is an allusion to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.*
Though it seems clear that a comic book featuring a “Negro” monkey-boy is offensive, Mexican dignitaries think otherwise. Not only have they defended the country’s love for the comic book figure, they also issued a stamp in commemoration of Memin Pinguin in 2005. To the critics from the North, they say, because Americans don’t understand the culture, they have no right to object to the character.
I beg to differ. In the 1950s and ’60s, when the U.S. made headlines for its Jim Crow policies, dignitaries from a range of countries spoke out about segregation, refusing to kowtow to the notion that Jim Crow was simply the Southern (American) way of life, a way of life they couldn’t grasp. The same went for our “peculiar institution” of slavery. And the same goes for Memim Pinguin.
He may only be a comic book character, but, by portraying this little black child as something less than human, the book sets the stage for children to further dehumanize blacks. Not only is this of concern to blacks in Mexico, the bulk of whom can be found in the Vera Cruz region, this is of concern to the blacks throughout Latin America, where the books also have a large following. Thanks to Wal-Mart’s decision to carry the Memin Pinguin series, now the comic book is of concern to American blacks as well.
Wal-Mart is an establishment I already strive to avoid, but the company’s decision to carry the reissued Memin Pinguin books only strengthens my resolve never to shop there again. What will they pedal next—lawn jockeys? But is it surprising that a corporation known for failing to provide employees with fair wages, medical benefits and the right to unionize would have no qualms about promoting a book for children that, at its core, serves to dehumanize?
As for the Mexican people’s supposed love for Memin Pinguin, I admit to knowing little about popular culture there. But what I do know is that there is a dearth of actors with indigenous and African heritage featured in television programming in Mexico, and, when such actors are featured, it’s usually to fill a stereotypical role, such as a maid. I do know that indigenous people in the country all too often fall at the very bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole there, with no way to work themselves up. So little is their worth that hundreds of indigenous women who work in Chihuahua’s factories have been systematically raped, tortured and killed for more than a decade, and no one has been held responsible. Despite international outcry, it is apparently acceptable for the country’s elite to hunt these women for sport.
Even if Mexico were a model of egalitarianism, Memim Pinguin would remain a character worthy of our censure, but the fact that the country has much progress to make in this arena makes it imperative that we speak (and act) out against any figure, real or otherwise, which serves to dehumanize a portion of its population.
*Editor’s Note: Check out this video for more insight into what the books actually contain. The book in question appears to have been published before Obama announced his candidacy.
(Thanks to Cheryl Lynn for sending this in!)