Racist Achebe?

It occurs to me – as much as I concede Chinua Achebe’s argument on Heart of Darkness as epitomizing the “dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination” – that Achebe has unfortunately made himself a racist in this very essay. This is because Achebe, albeit his usual aplomb, has made the mistake of criticizing Conrad as a “thorough-going racist” instead of the book’s narrator. To put it more specifically: how convincing is someone who, on the one hand, condemns an author for “inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words” while using equally emotional language in that same debate? (For instance, he is convinced of “Conrad’s purpose [as] letting the European glimpse the unspeakable craving in their hearts”; emphasis mine). To redress the atrocities of literary colonization through literature is without any doubt much more than showing the colonizers their barbaric reflection. This opinion of mine may be insubstantial, but it certainly isn’t beside the point.


I must reiterate that I find Achebe’s essay both cogent and insightful, especially in his reading of Marlow’s anxiety as “the terrible risk of hearing grotesque echoes of its own forgotten darkness” instead of having simple contempt for traveling to the “heart of darkness”. However, isn’t Achebe’s conflation of the racist Marlow as the direct mouthpiece for Conrad doing the same injustice Marlow does to Africans, on the basis of judging the latter’s acts of non-modernity as “primordial barbarity”?


To me, Heart of Darkness is indeed a racist text; yet, both authors that are discussed here are, although to a different extent, racist.

2 thoughts on “Racist Achebe?

  1. this is an EXCELLENT point, KY, and yes, achebe has been attacked on this very issue. achebe does go some way to address this in the article, though–extra points if you can find it 🙂

  2. “It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad’s but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism.”

    Achebe then goes on to construct his defense by alleging Conrad’s lack of “an alternative frame of reference” as a deliberate decision and also by the “fact” that Conrad and Marlow are both Englishmen who share similar careers.

    I can genuinely see where Achebe’s anger is coming from. But, I have to say that Achebe might be transgressing his academic position as an esteemed literary critique perhaps? 🙂