Heart of Darkness Racist? An in-depth look courtesy of Chinua Achebe and Wilson Harris
Chinua Achebe An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness “ an offensive and deplorable book” “ a story in which the very humanity of black people is called into question”
An Introduction by Achebe
Achebe begins his criticism by relating two stories:
The first involves meeting a man on the street who was unaware that Africa had literature.
The second involves a letter that Achebe received where a student professed interest in learning about the customs of an African tribe in Things Fall Apart.
This sets the stage for the main points that Achebe will try to make:
The Western world is largely ignorant.
Africa should not exist as a foil to the Western world.
From there, Achebe begins his true criticism.
His ultimate point will be that Heart of Darkness should be recognized as a racist work.
A Poor Contrast
Achebe begins by attacking Conrad’s contrast of Africa and Europe.
“ Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization.”
Achebe takes issue not solely with the fact that Africa is presented as the opposite of Europe, but that it is unknowable.
He feels that Conrad is afraid of “the lurking hint of kinship,” noting that Conrad fears Africa as a distant place still consumed with the savagery that Europe conquered.
Achebe finds fault with Conrad for purveying “comforting myths,” arguing that he played into the Western world’s stereotyping of Africa.
Throughout the piece, and in comments made elsewhere, Achebe will repeatedly call Conrad seductive, and accuse him of being sly.
Limbs and Rolling Eyes
Achebe’s next point, after establishing Conrad’s prejudice for the country, is to establish his prejudice for the people.
He once again maintains that the Western world enjoys the work because it plays into stereotypes.
“ What thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity- like yours…Ugly.”
Achebe claims that Conrad held views that dehumanize Africans.
Essentially, he believes that Conrad felt that the Africans primarily spent their time engaging in “savage” behavior, and that Conrad saw this as romantic.
Further, he accuses Conrad of encouraging Africans to be “in their place”, which includes performing activities like:
He feels that Conrad does not like Africans acting in a European manner, citing a passage where a native is operating the boiler on the steamer, ending with the quote “[h]e ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank.”
Achebe also mentions Kurtz’s mistress, bringing up that she is a contrast to Kurtz’s fiancée (i.e. Europe), an example of Africa’s mystery and primal nature, and a native “in her place.”
The Gift of Gab
Another point of Achebe’s is that Conrad rarely deigns to make the Africans in any way intelligent, citing particularly their lack of speech.
He notes that they do not speak even amongst themselves.
The idea that African’s are inherently less the Europeans bothers Achebe immensely.
Chain of Command
Achebe starts his next section by noting that Conrad has attempted to create a barrier between himself and the characters.
Conrad as related through Marlow as related through unnamed narrator
It is implied in his essay that Achebe feels Marlow is unquestioningly racist.
Though Achebe acknowledges that Conrad and his mouthpieces pity the Africans, he makes it a point to say that they don’t consider them equals.
He notes the scene where the helmsman dies:
“ And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains this day in my memory- like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.”
Achebe feels that the bolded text insinuates that not only were the Africans not brothers to the white men, but that they didn’t even have much more than a claim to the distinction.
And the Truth Comes Out
At this point, Achebe calls Conrad a racist for the first time.
He then acknowledges that Conrad is critical of the Europeans, and proceeds to note that it can be construed that Africa is merely the setting for the disintegration of Kurtz’s mind.
However, this angers him perhaps more than anything.
“ 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?”
Achebe, notes, though, that this is not the point, and argues that the real issue is that the book celebrates the dehumanization of Africa
In another “concession,” Achebe also acknowledges the time period that Conrad lived in.
However, he proceeds to discuss Conrad’s use of the word “nigger.”
“Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts.”
Achebe also discusses the amount of times the word “black” comes up.
Meanwhile, in Africa…
At this point, Achebe argues his case for why Conrad was wrong:
He mentions in particular that Africa, during Marlow’s time, was an area of great interest to artists.
According to Achebe, it was African art that inspired cubism, and led to the reinvigorating of European art.
Achebe blames Conrad’s xenophobia for covering this true Africa, and instead presenting the skewed perception of most Europeans.
Achebe sums up his point by explaining that Conrad’s Africa is to Europe what the famous portrait was to Dorian Gray: a place to cast moral and cultural deformities, so Europe could progress untarnished.
“ Keep away from Africa, or else! Mr. Kurtz of Heart of Darkness should have heeded that warning and the prowling horror in his heart would have kept its place, chained to its lair.”
He finally states that racism toward Africa is inherent to the West even today, and that optimism is difficult, given that it is an almost knee-jerk reaction.
The Frontier on Which Heart of Darkness Stands
A Rebuttal, with some help from Messrs. Skoff and Henderson
The Other Side of the Coin
Harris begins his rebuttal by agreeing with Achebe that the West has a history of racism.
However, he follows this up by noting that the West is seeking to rid itself of this guilt.
As a whole, Harris’ essay will, for the most part, conclude that Achebe missed the point.
Harrison argues that Achebe has largely misinterpreted Conrad’s work due to his lumping in of Conrad with the rest of Europe.
According to him, most of Heart of Darkness can be read as racist, and it was made this way on purpose.
To greatly summarize Harris’ piece (which is largely written in complex and difficult to understand phrasing), Heart of Darkness is a parody.
Everything that the characters say and think, from the European’s colonial attitude, to Marlow’s condescending sympathies, are intentional.
He notes that the descriptions of the Africans themselves, a major sticking point of Achebe’s, is a part of this as well.
Harris goes so far as to say that Conrad does his job too well, and that as a result, he can appear racist.
He implies that Achebe is unable to comprehend the depth of what Conrad had written.
In response to some of Achebe’s criticisms on adjective use, Harris implies that the adjectives went beyond simple description, and were more about metaphysical properties.
Harris, while making a few good points, is largely ineffectual do to his overly complicated writing style, and his focus on the “poetic” nature of Achebe.
Much of the essay involves how Conrad was able to create almost a new form of novel
In our opinion, there are four simple reasons why Achebe was wrong.
Reason #1: Willful Misinterpretation (i.e. Bias)
As critics tend to go, Achebe is notorious for adding meaning to things that don’t necessarily have the meaning he implies.
Achebe thought that Curious George was racist.
He is overly critical of any literature written about Africa that was not written by an African.
In line with his fight for equality, Achebe seems to have something of a chip on his shoulder regarding Western literature.
Reason #2: Misguided Rage
A particularly large part of Achebe’s anger seems to be directed toward Conrad’s descriptive terms for black people, nigger being the most offensive.
Though he acknowledges the time that the book was written, he still seems to insist that the use of the word makes Conrad a racist.
This anger spills over into the rest of his article, making what should have been a defense of Africa more of an attack on Conrad.
Note that he does not defend the black race as a whole: while he decries the use of the word nigger, he does so mainly to prove his claim that Conrad is a racist.
The rest of the piece is about why Africa is not a place of darkness, not why blacks are lesser than whites.
Reason #3: Missing the Point
What Harris gets right above all else is that Achebe missed the point.
For an obvious example, return to the description of the native running the boiler.
Achebe saw racism; we see Conrad lamenting that a man has been snatched from his normal lifestyle and forced to run a steamship.
Many of Conrad’s adjectives are metaphorical, all relating back to the central point.
When the book is called Heart of Darkness, and is about man’s lapse into primal instinct, expect “black” to be used as a descriptive word a lot, and for characters to engage in wild activity
Next to Huck Finn , Conrad’s novel is one of the most obvious cases for fair treatment of Africans.
Nowhere in the book does Marlow, Conrad’s mouthpiece, disparage blacks with overt racism.
In some ways, the book implies that Marlow came in with ideas already in his head, and over time learned that Africans were just like everyone else.
In the end, the book isn’t really even about Africa, or colonialism.
As the title implies, it is about man’s ability to lapse into darkness.
To show this, the characters’ needed a place to go, and where better than the last unexplored part of the world?
Reason #4: Not Stating the Right Thing
Had Achebe complained that Conrad misinterpreted Africa, and nothing else, he might have a point.
However, he calls Conrad racist.
His original point, about ignorance, is far more understandable.
In the end, his real anger is with Africa being compared unfavorably (debatable) with Europe.
While we see Achebe’s point, we feel that he should have stuck to lamenting about the typecasting of Africa in Western literature.
To even the most casual observer, Heart of Darkness is obviously not racist.