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Was Achebe completely right to write off Heart of Darkness as a racist text by Noel Ihebuzor

In an essay titled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” Chinua Achebe calls out Conrad for racism and spends time showing examples of racism, stereotyping, otherness and infantilzation of Africans in the novella. Whilst such a reading and reaction have their merits, they have the danger of also obscuring and downplaying Conrad’s strong critique and condemnation of colonialism and the then popular rationalisation of the invasion and despoiling of Africa by appeals to the theory of the white man’s burden. So, heart of darkness whilst it may have traces of racism is a good primer and introduction to any serious critique of colonialism. A fair appraisal would thus require putting its observed defects side by side with its shattering critique and dismantling of the false claims that were used to rationalise colonialism.

Heart of Darkness thus deserves a second trial by jury with a little bit more of emotional distance from the setting and characters than Chinua Achebe. I think that the great novelist Achebe overreacted in his response to Conrad. Such an overreaction is understandable in an African smarting from the sting of insults to Africa by white scholars such as the Regius professor of history Trevor Roper who had argued that Africa had no history before the coming of the white beyond the gyrations of tribes in the wilds of the dark continent.

So I understand why CA reacted the way he did . I have read and re-read the paper where CA calls Conrad out and some of the claims against Conrad there are justified.

But CA should also have recognized that Conrad, talking through Marlow, was very savage and scathing in his demolition of the justifications of the colonial enterprise. Nearly every white man in that novella is presented as grossly ignorant, lacking in depth and driven by greed. Conrad is particularly critical of the methods of the white colonizer and even the pilgrims going up the river with Marlow come across as a bunch of poorly camouflaged mercenaries in search of loot and plunder. Kurtz is the archetype of evil, of cruelty and unspeakable savagery. Indeed the heart of Darkness refers to the heart of Kurtz and not to the Congo. It describes the depravity in the heart of Kurtz. It refers to that twisted heart ruined by its obsession with ivory, an obsession that pushes Kurtz to carry out ivory raids and to put the heads of all who opposed him on stakes!

Conrad indicts colonialism and lays bare its false justifications. Yes, I agree that some of Conrad’s explanations for the origins of Kurtz’s lunacy, such as the one that the jungle had invaded Kurtz’s mind in retaliation for his invasion of its space, is deficient. Such an explanation belongs to an era of premature speculative animism masquerading as science but we must be careful not to mistake such dabbling into pseudoscience as an apologia for racism. I see Heart of Darkness as one of the earliest examples of anti-colonial literature.

Author:

Development and policy analyst with a strong interest in the arts and inclusive social change. Dabbles occasionally into poetry and literary criticism!

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