Racism in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”?

Joseph Conrad's famous book "Heart of Darkness"

“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad is frequently among the many books that students will be assigned to read during their time in school.  European colonialism, morality and the levels of darkness that the protagonist encounters are all topics for classroom discussions.  But what about race?  How is race portrayed in the story and how is that reflected back on Conrad’s own views?  Acclaimed author Chinua Achebe claims that Conrad’s book is overtly racist and believes that students and scholars should spend more time discussing that claim.  Achebe believes that a novel which celebrates dehumanization and “depersonalizes a portion of the human race” cannot be called great art. It’s not hard to agree with Achebe that Conrad’s portrayal of Africans is indeed racist, but it’s important to look at the book and its tone in a historical context. When the novella was written over 100 years ago, racist language was commonplace and accepted.  Conrad’s passages describing “savages” and cannibalism would have evoked little reaction back then but now makes us cringe.

The main character of the story, Marlow, was modeled after some of Conrad’s own experiences in the Congo.  Even though Marlow’s interactions with the Congolese are discussed in a dehumanizing way, you get the impression that he believes himself to be of a higher moral standing then the other Europeans he is stationed with.  This doesn’t take away from the fact that Conrad’s tone is Eurocentric and racist, only that when we look at how race is represented in the story, is it’s important to look at it in a historical context. 

Another reason why Heart of Darkness should be read is that it can teach people that the roots of many of the problems found in Africa are due to the destructive legacies of colonialism. Someone who has studied African history on a deeper level will know that all over the continent there existed different types of societies, from simple tight knit communities to kingdoms and empires. In part of the territory comprising Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there was a powerful kingdom called the Kongo. When the Portuguese first arrived there they traded and had diplomatic relations with the Kongolese, but then they began to raid the Kongo for ivory and slaves. In Adam Hochschild’s book ‘King Leopold’s Ghost’, the current King of the Kongo, in an eloquently written letter to the Portuguese king appealed to him to stop his soldiers who were causing destruction of his people (which was ignored).  Events like this are things that few people in the West know about.  Even though Conrad’s portrayal of African is racist, Heart of Darkness should not be written off but instead should be read as a supplement to African history, to show the West’s role in causing the widespread poverty and destruction that still endures today, and to show that having scientific advances, or strong religious convictions does not mean being civilized.

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