It was not until 1975 when Chinua Achebe gave his famous lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that the issue of race was tackled head on in Conrad’s work. It is this lecture that has become the cornerstone of writing and criticism of Heart of Darkness. It would be hard to find an essay since then that doesn’t in some way discuss or acknowledge Achebe’s essay. Even critics who do not use take into account historical or auto-biographical details of a work, such as Miller, have written responses to Achebe. In Miller’s essay “Should we read Heart of Darkness?” he discusses, in his own way, the essence of Achebe’s argument that the novella should not be read because of its racist undertones. On critic has even gone on to say that Achebe’s essay has become a work included in the literature canon.
The lecture given at the University of Massachusetts in early 1975 was published as an essay in The Massachusetts Review, and later republished in The Norton Critical Edition Heart of Darkness. Achebe’s main theme within the essay is “the need—in Western psychology to set up Africa as a foil to Europe” (“Image” 252). Within the context of this theme he goes on to criticize what he considers a work of “permanent literature”, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. He discusses how within the context of the work we can see that Conrad was nothing more than a racist. The entire argument of the essay, both the ignorance of Western literature and Conrad’s racism, can be summed up in the following passage:
Africa as a setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as a human factor … Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization… can be called a great work of art. My answer is: “No it cannot (“Image” 257). It is interesting how most critics focus on the first two sentences of the beginning of this passage, the idea of Africa as the setting. Few it seems what to take on the charge that Heart of Darkness is not a great work of art.”1
(University of Massachusetts Amherst [chapel and library])
We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly as we struggled round a bend there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse. We could not understand because we were too far and could not remember, because we were traveling in the night of first ages, of those ages that are gone, leaving hardly a sign – and no memories.
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly and the men were… No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it – this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun and made horrid faces, but what thrilled you, was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.
And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs. A few months of training had done for that really fine chap. He squinted at the steam-gauge and at the water-gauge with an evident effort of intrepidity – and he had filed his teeth too, the poor devil, and the wool of his pate shaved into queer patterns, and three ornamental scars on each of his cheeks. He ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank, instead of which he was hard at work, a thrall to strange witchcraft, full of improving knowledge.
Now and then a boat from the shore gave one a momentary contact with reality. It was paddled by black fellows. You could see from afar the white of their eyeballs glistening. They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks – these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement that was as natural and hue as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there. They were a great comfort to look at.
She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent... She stood looking at us without a stir and like the wilderness itself, with an air of brooding over an inscrutable purpose.
She came forward all in black with a pale head, floating toward me in the dusk. She was in mourning… She took both my hands in hers and murmured, “I had heard you were coming.” ... She had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.
They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.
And the intimate profundity of that look he gave me when he received his hurt remains to this day in my memory – like a claim of distant kinship affirmed in a supreme moment.
The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across tile water to bar the way for our return.
A certain enormous buck nigger encountered in Haiti fixed my conception of blind, furious, unreasoning rage, as manifested in the human animal to the end of my days. Of the nigger I used to dream for years afterwards.
A black figure stood up, strode on long black legs, waving long black arms…
(his) calves exposed to the public gaze … dazzled the beholder by the splendor of their marble-like condition and their rich tone of young ivory … The light of a headlong, exalted satisfaction with the world of men … illumined his face … and triumphant eyes. In passing he cast a glance of kindly curiosity and a friendly gleam of big, sound, shiny teeth … his white calves twinkled sturdily.
Gaugin had gone to Tahiti, the most extravagant individual act of turning to a non-European culture in the decades immediately before and after 1900, when European artists were avid for new artistic experiences, but it was only about 1904-5 that African art began to make its distinctive impact. One piece is still identifiable; it is a mask that had been given to Maurice Vlaminck in 1905. He records that Derain was “speechless” and “stunned” when he saw it, bought it from Vlaminck and in turn showed it to Picasso and Matisse, who were also greatly affected by it. Ambroise Vollard then borrowed it and had it cast in bronze … The revolution of twentieth century art was under way!
In London there is an enormous immigration of children who speak Indian or Nigerian dialects, or some other native language.