November 22, 2009
Colonial, Postcolonial, and Racism in Africa
My interest in this course is amazing in the sense that it consists of elements that I can identify with in relation to my youth and ancestry since I am of multi-racial origin. My Native American heritage relates to elements of different skin color, dehumanization, and racism among other things of oppression. Subsequently, I decided to research aspects of racism in Colonial and Postcolonial literature such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". More specifically, are colonial or post-colonial authors viewed as racist due to the racial content of their writings?
Further, my first effort in research led me information on darkness and in relation to Africa often referred to as the Dark Continent by some writers. Darkness is sometimes referred to as black, things or people of evil nature, the unknown, the mystic, and horror in relation to death. For example, in Heart of Darkness the emphasis is on the theme of darkness within all of mankind, Marlow's narration takes place on a yawl in the Thames tidal basin. Early in the story, Marlow reflects back on how London in the opposite direction from the idealism announced in his self-deconstructing report as a civilizer. His writings designate in Marlow's view an "exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence" and they appeal to "every altruistic sentiment." His predisposition for benevolent sympathy is clear in the statement "We whites...must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings....By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded". The Central Station manager quotes Kurtz, the exemplar: "Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a centre for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing". Kurtz's inexperienced, scientific self in the fiery report is alive with the possibility of the cultivation and conversion of the "savages." He would have subscribed to Moreau's proposition that "a pig may be educated" (Conrad, 4). Marlow and Kurtz believed that the African Natives were lower than humans.
In addition, I found that Kurtz is also the author of a "pamphlet" regarding the civilization of the natives. However, over the course of his stay in Africa, he becomes corrupted. He takes his pamphlet and scribbles in, at the very end, the words "Exterminate all the brutes!" He induces the natives to worship him, setting up rituals and venerations worthy of a tyrant. By the time Marlow, the protagonist, sees Kurtz, he is ill with "jungle fever" and almost dead. Marlow seizes Kurtz and endeavors to take him back down the river in his steamboat. Kurtz dies on the boat with the last words, "The horror! The horror!" By his evil doings, Kurtz believed that Africa and the Africans in a sense had the last laugh and cursed him all the way to his grave.
In a post-colonial reading, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe famously criticized Heart of Darkness in his 1975 lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", saying the novella de-humanized Africans, denied them language and culture, and reduced them to a metaphorical and evil extension of the dark and dangerous jungle into which the Europeans venture:
Certainly Conrad had a problem with niggers. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts. Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting, as when he gives us this brief description: “A black arms”—as though we might expect a black figure striding along on black legs to wave white arms! But so relenting is Conrad’s obsession. (Achebe, P. 13)
However Conrad, uses light to indicate deceit in Heart of Darkness. For example, when something glitters, it does not glitter because it is beautiful or good, but because there is something hidden under the surface, and sometimes something dangerous. The river glitters, eyes glitter. The haze is translucent, still, eerie, as though the sky was covered with white gauze. It is as though the light does not illuminate the darkness, but rather that, in a sense, the light is the darkness. If the light is the darkness, then perhaps Achebe is wrong. Conrad might using the words nigger and the use of darkness and light to contradict the Africans with the Europeans. It would then be the light Europeans who represent darkness, evil.
Achebe forgets that Heart of Darkness was written at a time when the word nigger was commonly used, and not considered racist. Achebe is reading Conrad from a modern point-of-view. Conrad was opposed to colonialism, Achebe himself notes of Conrad: It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad’s but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism. Certainly, Conrad appears to go to considerable pains to set up layers of insulation between himself and the moral universe of his story. He has, for example, a narrator behind a narrator (Conrad, 10).
However, Achebe, still judges Conrad from a modern point-of-view and deems him a racist. While, by our current standards, Conrad is a racist, by the standards of the 1890’s he was no such thing. Compared to the view of many other people, Conrad was an extreme liberal who did his best to shed light on the plight of the African people (Achebe, 12).
According to a Lawrence University Freshman Studies Lecture given by Candice Bradley Associate Professor of Anthropology presents the question; does this mean that Conrad was a racist? Not necessarily. Conrad is not Marlow. Perhaps Conrad constructed Marlow as a racist, at least in part, by having him use such words as "nigger" or savage in a few select places in the book. If you go onto the Freshman Studies World Wide Web page, however, you will find a searchable index of Heart of Darkness. Type in the word "nigger" (do this both for the singular and the plural) to see every case in which the term is used. Surprise. Most of the times that Marlow uses the word nigger, it is when an African has been physically abused by somebody else, when the African has already been completely and totally dehumanized. Otherwise Marlow uses Negro, or Black.
My answer is: Yes, it can. Conrad dehumanizes all the characters in the novel. However, by dehumanizing the Africans and Africa he points out the hypocrisy of European attitudes towards Africa. The novel does not celebrate the dehumanizing of a portion of the human race, but mocks the dehumanization as evil.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ware, Hertfordshire SG12 9HJ:
Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1999.
Chinua Achebe’s An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness",