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.