Friday, July 08, 2005

Memin Pinguin

I'm fascinated by the flap over Mexico's Memin Pinguin cartoon character, because it's such a train wreck of American PC shibboleths.

Most of us gringos probably never heard of this "jolly, sweet-tempered, stupid little fellow with an Aunt-Jemima-like mother," who stars in a long-running comic book series, until Mexico put him on a sheet of postage stamps. But once you see the stamps (they're pictured in the link), you'll recognize him at once: big lips, flat nose, shoe-shine brown skin.

He's a Sambo.

Mexico doesn't have much of a black population. The number of imported African slaves never was large enough to form one, as it was in Brazil or the Caribbean or the American South. But there is a tiny community of African-descended Mexicans, and the Asociacion Mexico Negro claims to represent 50,000 of them, mostly living on the Pacific coast. The group has complained that the stamps are racist stereotypes.

That wouldn't have riled the waters, either. But American guardians of decency got wind of the stamps and the dudgeon started to flow. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton slammed the Mexican government. The White House, when asked about it point-blank, lent its voice to the condemnation. What did you expect it to do? Say, "ah, go on, get a life"?

Mexican President Vicente Fox vigorously defended the comic character and dismissed those who condemned it. "They don't have information, frankly," Fox said. "All Mexico loves the character." It's become a Mexican pride thing. "You Yankees are the real racists, because you want to push us around over our racism." Head spinning yet?

Memin Pinguin dates back to the 1940s. Though his direct inspiration was said to be black street waifs Mexican cartoonist Yolanda Carlos Dulche saw on a trip to Cuba, stylistically, his lineage is American; he from a long line of black comic caricatures who have long since been laid to rest in the United States. Curiously, like die-hard Confederates after Appomattox, he preserves a lost cause south of the border.

Great American cartoonists like Will Eisner drew such characters. Joel Chandler Harris wrote them in animal form. They served as sidekicks to Captain Marvel and Mandrake the Magician and -- in flesh and blood -- Jack Benny and Scarlett O'Hara.

And if you remember any of these American Memin Pinguins, you'll recall that, though in subordinate social positions, they were admirable characters, imbued with wit, kindness, strength or a combination of all. Eddie Anderson's "Rochester" getting the best of his boss was a recurring theme of the Jack Benny radio show.

Yet, like Jim in "Huck Finn," America jettisoned these characters from its pop culture as the price of peaceful integration. However beloved they were among whites, the leaders of the black community told us they offended, and hurt the cause of brotherhood. So they were sent packing.

Among Memin Pinguin's lost cousins was the star of "The Story of Little Black Sambo," the enormously popular children's book by Scottish writer Helen Bannerman, which actually is about an East Indian child. The absurdity of this was duly noted: Sambo was neither black nor American, and though it's condescending, the whole story is a tale of his just reward for triumphing over the tigers who want to eat him. It didn't matter. Sambo had to go.

Also caught in the immolation was the Sambo's Restaurant chain, a pancake-specialty joint founded in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1957. The decor and advertising leaned heavily on images from Bannerman's book, but the name ultimately was a merging of the names of the founders, Sam Battistone and Newell "Bo" Bohnett. Sambo's once counted 1,200 units coast-to-coast. Civil rights agitation against it began in 1970s and the chain collapsed, though the original restaurant still is open. Many of the defunct restaurants were taken over by rival Denny's.

American activists carried the Sambo crusade overseas. The story was a favorite in Japan, too, but in 1988, under pressure from a U.S.-led campaign, Japanese booksellers pulled it from their shelves. But now it's back, and more popular than ever.

Last April, Zuiunsha, a small publisher in Tokyo, decided to reissue the book - under its Japanese title Chibikuro Sambo - reckoning that today's children would be as enchanted by the book as their parents were.

The gamble has paid off. About 100,000 copies of the 30-page book have been sold in the past two months and it has made it into the top five on the adult fiction bestsellers' lists at big bookshops in the capital.

So what do we do with Memin Pinguin? White America had such an awful case of racism that it had to be purged even down to the cartoon characters? Very well, but by what right do we dictate rules to another country and decide what is unacceptable in its own pop culture?

Why, this smacks of unilateral Yankee cultural imperialism, pious moralizing, exceptionalism, paternalism, and all those other wicked American sins. But is a racist stereotype ever right if it rankles? If it was indefensible north of the Rio Grande, how can it be defended on the south bank? What about gay stereotypes? Or is it impossible to export tolerance? Certain Americans defend the right of American blacks to refer to one another by a word whites now are forbidden to use in any context. But the Mexicans are not descended from Africans.

Oh dear, what a tangle.