Justifiable anger

An Image of Africa
by Chinua Achebe

This is actually two essays by the great Nigerian author: “An image of Africa: racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, and “The trouble with Nigeria”. Which are some pretty heavy topics, so it’s possibly best that they total less than 100 pages between them!

The first essay is fascinating, though I would no doubt get more from it had I actually read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But then the major reason Achebe came to write this essay is that Heart of Darkness is so widely read and studied that the grotesque myths and caricatures it perpetuates cannot easily be erased from the public consciousness, so perhaps by not reading it myself I’m helping just a little bit?

As the title suggests, Achebe argues that Heart of Darkness is hideously, unforgivably racist. From subtle linguistic differences between descriptions of black and white to outright lies told about African natives, Achebe’s argument seems hard to counter. I found it interesting that he calls Conrad a “great stylist of modern fiction”, which is perhaps akin to saying he ought to have known better. He speaks of Conrad’s fixation with blackness and the word “nigger” but mostly he is concerned with the way the book questions “the very humanity of black people”. Which is a grievous accusation indeed, and certainly I can see why Achebe might feel such anger toward the book.

Achebe doesn’t just look to the book itself but also to modern scholars’ writing about it. Not one of them, he says, has dealt with the subject of racism in Heart of Darkness, which suggests that all those scholars considered racism to be entirely normal and/or acceptable. The possible damage of continuing to teach such a text widely is that such attitudes will continue to be normalised, that the image of Africa as the dark, prehistoric continent will be perpetuated and therefore racism continue.

Reading the second essay is to some extent dependent on having some knowledge of Nigeria and in particular the Nigeria of 1983, when the essay was written. Achebe speaks largely about corruption and rule-breaking in his home country. Though he lambasts his fellow Nigerians, occasionally lapsing into caricature and generalisation, he always comes back to how the country’s leaders have made the situation what it is. He balances out the generalisations with specific examples of men or occasions that highlight his points. Politicians Azikiwe and Owolowo come under particular fire, but I was more interested to hear brief mention of a name entirely new to me, Aminu Kano, who Achebe compares to Mahatma Gandhi and calls a “saint and revolutionary”. I am immensely curious what is behind these words of admiration and am off right now to ask the internet what the story is.

“An image of Africa” was originally given as a lecture at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, February 1975; later published in the Massachussetts Review 1977.
“The trouble with Nigeria” first published by Fourth Dimension Publishing 1983.
This selection published 2010 by Penguin Books in the “Great Ideas” series.

3 thoughts on “Justifiable anger

  1. The Girl June 27, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Ah now I’ve heard of this Heart of Darkness book. Tim Butcher mentioned it in his book Blood River a couple of times, but only in passing and only to say that it was a load of old racist codswallop (there’s a chance I’m paraphrasing).

    BUT this has made me decide that the next classic I will read (once I’ve got my way through Tess of the D’Urbervilles) is going to be Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ so thank you for that!

  2. Nose in a book June 27, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    The Girl Ha ha! I read Things Fall Apart for A-level and liked it despite the vigorous pulling apart, so that’s probably a good sign. Also, I like that my copy is crammed full of notes, underscores and essay plans.

  3. gusset July 5, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    “Achebe doesn’t just look to the book itself but also to modern scholars’ writing about it. Not one of them, he says, has dealt with the subject of racism in Heart of Darkness, which suggests that all those scholars considered racism to be entirely normal and/or acceptable.”

    Having read Heart of Darkness I can see where this is coming from but I’d admit I haven’t read any essays about it, Achebe’s included.

    I wonder whether the reason racism was viewed as “entirely normal” in academic circles, at least in 1977, would more accurately be described as “being view as having been entirely normal” at the time Conrad was writing. That would probably be the case now. What I can’t say is what the academic view now is on its acceptability? Is it accepted as what things were like without moralizing? I suspect it’s not swept under the carpet and works ignored because of this. Surely it is better to study those works still and keep the social changes in mind than to ignore the works entirely and forget what has been achieved since?

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