Out of Africa. Is Heart of Darkness to be considered a racist novel?

In 2003, Caryl Phillips meets Chinua Achebe to discuss about “Heart of darkness”, the  novel written by Joseph Conrad. After their meeting, Phillips rewrites the entire conversation and publishes it on The Guardian. In this article, I report the summary of their debate.

Just to introduce you to the setting, we are in upstate New York and Caryl Phillips has been driving for two hours to reach Chinua Achebe’s house, which is decorated with African art and artifacts. It’s snowy outside and the whiteness might represent Europe itself. Phillips is a new Marlow driving a car as an alternative steamboat: Achebe’s house is the new Africa where Phillips will try to seek for the new Kurtz. Marlowe’s search for Kurtz is mirrored by Phillip’s own one, which aims to investigate whether Conrad was a racist or not.

Achebe is one of the most important writers in the second half of the century and he is also considered to be the father of African literature in English language. He has been dedicating his whole life to Heart of Darkness, the novel written by Conrad.

But why does this one slim volume published in 1902 exercise such a hold on Achebe? The reason is quite simple and it is because, according to him, Conrad was a racist and his novel can’t be seen as an art product. Art is more than just good sentences and it is not intended to put people down. If so, art would discredit itself. Phillips has never viewed Conrad as a thoroughgoing racist and doesn’t understand how he could have missed that.

Whether he was a racist or not, what are the arguments raised by Achebe to say Conrad was a racist and what are Phillips ones to assert he was not one?

For Achebe, Conrad sets Africa up as “the other world” so that he might examine Europe. This is part of a discourse we can encounter when addressing Orientalism. Here, the role of Asia is played by Africa, which is the exact opposite of the “civilized” Europe that has produced glittering humanity, whereas Africa has produced nothing but bestiality and savagery. Conrad mocks the African and the African landscape. Those people are so ugly that Conrad can only admit to have nothing more than a remote kinship with them. He often uses animal metaphors to refer to them: they look like ants or dogs and they are unearthly, inhuman, they leap, howl and make horrid faces. Achebe is aware that this way of describing his people reflects the dominant image of Africa in the western imagination, but he cannot accept that Africans are a savage mirror where Europeans can measure their own grip to civilization. However, the book was written in the wake of Berlin Conference where Africa was divided between European nations and for Phillips it is ridiculous to demand of Conrad that he imagines an African humanity that is totally out of line with the times he was living in. Achebe argues that Conrad has an admiration for the white skin and it is the whiteness that he likes. He is also obsessed with the negro and his physicality. To support his thesis, Achebe refers back to the descriptions made by Conrad of his first encounter with a black man and a white man: for the former, the exact words are “an enormous buck nigger, a furious human animal with unreasonable rage”; for the latter “my unforgettable Englishman with triumphant eyes, shiny teeth and white calves”.

Again, Phillips claims that we cannot demand that the artist rises above the prejudices of his times, but, for Achebe, great artists manage to be bigger than their times: Livingstone for example, even if he was not an artist, saw Africans as infuriating, but he saw them like human beings just as Europeans or Asians, and able to do good things exactly as bad things. Anyways, I must point out that, for sure, Livingstone was more respectful towards Africans than explorers and missionaries, but he still viewed them as “children” or “savages”. Occasionally he even expressed doubt that a European presence in Africa would be beneficial, but he also believed that the African was “benighted” and that the European was the bearer of the “light” of civilization and true religion. He held that Africa would be without hope of “raising itself” unless there was “contact with superior races by commerce.”

Many critics have argued that the methodology of narration in the book is anti-colonial and against racism. Achebe says he is not fooled by this gamesmanship: Conrad is not distancing himself from the views of his characters and he approves of Marlow; also, as a “great author”, he could have hinted at an alternative frame of reference by which it would have been possible to judge differently the actions and opinions of the characters. A few statements about it not being a nice thing to exploit people with flat noses is not enough to admit this novel is against colonialism. Conrad’s long and hypnotic sentences are meant to induce hypnotic stupor in the reader, ending up to say poor Africa is inexplicable. Authors like Derek Walcott have had a teaching attitude towards Conrad viewing him as a “bastard” who didn’t know the words to describe the so called “darkness” and giving him a lesson of re-writing in order to fill the “emptiness”. Achebe has no time to give lessons to Conrad: he is absolutely furious at him because he denied a voice to the African; Achebe’s father was born in the period in which Conrad is describing Africa and he had heard absolutely different stories from him and he can’t accept the author’s limitations. For Phillips, Conrad’s narrative circles are trapped in the complexity of the situation and his only program is doubt about the supremacy of   Europeans. The main focus of the novel, according to Phillips, is the Europeans and what occurs when they encounter a “less civilized world”, there is no program of dismantling European racism or imperialistic exploitation. Phillips is convinced that Conrad’s writing prepares us for a new world in which modern man has to endure psychic and physical pain of displacement and see what seemed standard mute. Once, a student told Achebe that Africa was a setting for the disintegration of the European mind and that drove him totally crazy because nobody seemed to see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one single mind. It is fine to question both European ambivalence towards the colonizing mission and her own system of civilization, but he cannot accept the denial of Africans’ full and complex humanity. At this point of the discussion something strange happens and an epiphany is provoked in Phillips by the discussion with Achebe. Phillips understands Achebe is offended because Conrad was a disrespectful visitor. He managed to free himself from the stereotypes about Africa, but he was raised in Europe and it is unconscious, but he is undeniably interested in the breakup of a European mind and the health of European civilization. Was he an African, he would feel offended. As Achebe states, identification with the other is what a great writer brings to the art of story making, and Conrad had made it impossible for Europeans to identify themselves with Africans because the two continents were set as two opposite elements who couldn’t communicate with each other. You can’t identify yourself with a savage brute or an animal if you are civilized. Phillips feels momentarily ashamed that he might have become caught up with this theme and overlooked how offensive this novel might be to Africans. This is the very moment in which he endorses the African point of view. For Achebe, his humanity is not to be debated nor it has to be used simply to illustrate European problems. Africa is people and those people expect a great writer not to make life more difficult for them. Achebe is right, thinks Phillips: to African, the price of Conrad’s denunciation of colonization is the recycling of racist notions of the dark continent. Europeans may be prepared to pay this price, but for Africans, it is far too high.


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