Heart of Darkness and the Dehumanization of Africans
The Western world, generally speaking, is not kind to Africa and its native inhabitants. We acknowledge Africa's existence, but we do not want to see or understand anything about it beyond the obvious: overt things that are open to criticism like Apartheid (a European invention). The occasional praiseworthy entity is given momentary applause, but felicitations are short-lived and quickly forgotten. These statements refer just to politics, so one can imagine the rightful indignation by twentieth-century African writers when their work is largely ignored in favor of such enlightening fare as Heart of Darkness. One writer, Chinua Achebe, seeks to change this view by illustrating the complex, unquestionably civilized rituals and protocols of day-to-day African life. He is not alone in his endeavor, as several other writers also portray an Africa worthy of respect while they crumble the long-standing traditions of ignorant bias and patronization.
Can Achebe really change the perception that Africa is nothing more than the heart of an immense darkness that surrounds all of us? That is exactly what he tries to do in his essay on racism. He ascertains that "white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked." He further questions the classification of Heart of Darkness (or any work that dehumanizes Africans) as a "great work of art" (12). Obviously, this essay is more direct in its attack on the standard view of Africa than his novels, but Achebe uses the essay forum to state his hopes about the future of African literature in the West. He wants to rehabilitate this image that he keeps seeing from everyone who has read Conrad but nothing on the other side with which to compare. He no longer thinks that nonexposure to African history and literature is an appropriate excuse for absorbing Conrad's drivel as the absolute truth.
Unfortunately for Achebe, many people still think of Africa as a shadowy place containing secret knowledge about the beginnings of mankind and how man would exist if he were not "civilized." However, he does not let that stop him from doing his best in his novels to counter that supposition. Okonkwo is far from being "a thing monstrous" or an inhabitant of "prehistoric earth . . . that wore the aspect of an unknown planet" (Conrad 108). He is a complicated man living in a complicated society. He has faults, strengths, and desires, and he would hardly worship a Kurtz if one happened to show up in Umuofia one day. Yes, Okonkwo and his fellow Igbo have some strange customs, but as Achebe points out in his essay, Yonkers, New York, has its own share of strange customs and rituals that a stranger might find primitive on the surface (2). This information would come as no shock to many anthropologists, nor would it seem strange to others (except, perhaps, the residents of Yonkers), but it is the attitude of...