Achebe vs. Conrad: Racism in Heart of Darkness

“… I look back now at my irrational fear of Ayoz, a person I later found to possess excellent character and a kind, giving heart, as pure naivety. It was a fear rooted in the most illogical of grounds: race. As someone who grew to abhor racism I look back, stunned that such ignorant thoughts once infested my mind. But as I have come to be an accepting man I’ve realized something: that despicable ideology is not a rarity. It lurks everywhere in our society: in our minds, in our entertainment, and most certainly in our literature.

Chinua Achebe rocked the boat of the literary world by calling Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness racist. After reading Achebe’s famous essay and Conrad’s novella I’ve come to side with Achebe. Conrad “was a thoroughgoing racist” (Achebe), Heart of Darkness showcases this perfectly. Throughout the novella Conrad describes and portrays the Africans and Africa itself in a condescending and racist way.

Consider first Conrad’s diction. When describing Africans he will often use words bearing a negative connotation. For instance, when describing Kurtz’s African mistress he refers to her as “savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent.” Savage is frequently used when describing Africans in the story. The amazon earned some favorable description (aside from the typical “savage”) from Conrad, she was Kurtz’s mistress. Conrad used her to subtly express that Africans who knew their place would receive better treatment from their masters. This amazon was Kurtz’s mistress; she definitely knew her place. Conrad also uses her to contrast with the European girl who loved Kurtz. When Conrad introduces this girl not a negative word can be found. Chinua Achebe drew this same comparison in his criticism of Conrad, stating that “the difference in the attitude of the novelist to these two women is conveyed in too many direct and subfile ways to need elaboration.” Achebe was right, the diction Conrad uses when discussing Africans oozes racism. The words “savage” and “nigger” persist throughout the tale, their usage abundant and derogatory.

As though Conrad’s diction when discussing the Africans is not enough, he also portrays the African characters negatively. Africans in Conrad’s world rarely speak. However, on the rare occasion a black person has something to say the idea is expressed in broken English. “Catch ‘im. Give ‘im to us.” “Mistah Kurtz — he dead.” Through their broken speech Conrad portrays Africans as lesser beings. A European character in the novel never makes a grammatical mistake, nor can a European ever not pronounce a letter. The Africans are lesser, incapable of speaking proper English like a European man. To add to their illiteracy the first quote is from an African who Conrad later describes as a cannibal. Their inability to speak and behave properly couples with Conrad’s diction to create a truly negative and racist portrayal of the African people.Finally we have Conrad’s image of Africa itself. Conrad characterizes Africa as a dark place filled with uncivilized, dark people. To Europeans in the novella Africa is a no-man’s-land, a place where one does not tread unless necessary. The Congo? It is a dark, god-forsaken, wild river; unlike the Thames river, a river tamed by the Europeans. Overall he takes a very condescending tone towards the Africans and their lands, exposing himself as a racist. Conrad was not required to portray and describe the Africans this way; it all comes back to the idea of racism.

Racist ideology lurks everywhere in our society. These disgusting thoughts dwell in a significant amount of 19th century literature, including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Chinua Achebe noted that, calling Conrad a “thoroughgoing” racist. Conrad showed his true colors with the condescending attitude he takes toward Africans, created primarily by his descriptions and portrayal of the “savages.” The hard, ugly truth is that there exists no such thing as a “post-racial” society. There was no such thing in Conrad’s time nor in our time, generations later. Whether you be a foolish youth (as I once was), or an elder with firmly rooted beliefs; a person must see this ugliness within them-self and their society. Just because you are respectful to people of other races, just because you avoid expressing your deepest thoughts; that doesn’t mean those thoughts disappear and you magically aren’t racist. I encourage anyone and everyone to examine themselves. Do these thoughts exist in yourself? If so, why are they in your mind? I said before that a “post-racial” society does not exist. But, perhaps, if we were all to examine ourselves as I have suggested; we would be a few steps closer. ‘


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