Colonialism and Beyond in Chinua Achebe's An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, No Longer at Ease, Things Fall Apart, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Emmanuel Nelson's Chinua Achebe, Postcolonial African Writers, Willene Taylor's A Search for Values in Things Fall Apart, Colin Turnbull's he Lonely African
This course on colonial and post-colonial literature satisfies my cravings for thought and literature that falls outside of the mainstream of the Eurocentric view of things. Achebe, Walcott, Arundhati, and Kincaid etc. the so-called marginalized- third-world writers provide another perspective, another glimpse of reality as they see and experience it. Hopefully this journal will juxtapose colonial and post-colonial perspectives. I'm also interested in the struggle between the 'old' and the 'new' (tradition vs. modernity) and how this represents itself in African culture and African literature.
One of the most well known post-colonial writers is Chinua Achebe. He was born in Ogidi in eastern Nigeria on November 16, 1930, to Isaiah Okafor Achebe and Janet Achebe. Even though his parents were devout evangelical Protestants, they still managed to instill in him many values of their traditional Igbo culture. "He attended mission schools, but remained emotionally close to many of his relatives who were not Christians. These early negotiations of cultural duality would later enable him to develop a necessary distance from the competing and conflicting forces that shaped his sense of self and formed his worldview" (Parekh 19)- a distance that he now affirms as a prerequisite to see the totality of life "steadily and fully" (Morning Yet on Creation Day, 68).
In 1944 Achebe enrolled in the Government College in Umuahia and four years later, he entered the London-affiliated University College at Ibadan. He graduated from Ibadan in 1953 and published his first novel, Things Fall Apart, 1958. It was published reluctantly, because Heinemann editors were uncertain if the West would purchase a novel by an African. But the novel was a stunning success and remains Achebe's most widely read work. Achebe has also published four other novels as well as essays, short fiction, and poetry. He has become one of Africa's most outspoken intellectuals.
Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart is the search for values in a world that is constantly beset by change. It depicts three cycles. In the first cycle Achebe depicts Ibo tribal life before the coming of the British near the end of the nineteenth century. This makes way for the beginning of the twentieth century and the Europeanization of Africa with all of its implied consequences for the issues, challenges, and future of a post-colonial Africa.
Okonkwo, the protagonist of Things Fall Apart, is the most opposed to change, he desperately tries to hold onto to the traditional values and practices of his Ibo society. He does so in the midst of an alien European invasion which ultimately results in the disintegration of this traditional African society.
Before writing Things Fall Apart, Achebe had become disturbed by the works of European writers which portrayed Africans as noble savages. "These European writers believed that colonialism was an agent of enlightenment to primitive peoples without a valid value system or civilization of their own" (Taylor 28). "Africa was pictured as the dark continent, inhabited by childlike, superstitious, and fearful people only too ready to welcome, and indeed worship the white man" (Taylor 28).
Achebe was particularly disturbed by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He felt that Conrad painted an inaccurate and demeaning picture of the African people. " 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" (Conrad 17). " The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us- who could tell?" (Conrad 37), and finally "the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly" (Conrad 38).
It is precisely these kinds of images that feed the whole myth of White superiority. A myth which has lived for centuries; it has quite the enduring quality. I am always amazed at the way in which race, class, and politics are used to marginalize people of color worldwide. It is amazing to me that the term minority is still being used in the twenty-first century. The word itself is a misnomer. People of color are not minorities. In fact, people of color represent the majority of the world's population. It is precisely the continuing effect of Eurocentrism, hegemony, and cultural bias which feeds the construction of the so-called minority.
Furthermore, it is a well established fact, for anyone who cares to know that human life originated in Africa. This has been documented by qualified archaeologists and paleontologists for some time now. Ironically, if Europeans search their family trees back far enough, it will lead to Africa. The oldest civilizations known to man are out of Africa.
It is no wonder that Achebe defends Africa so fervently against what he perceives as Conrad's inaccurate racist assault on Africa. In, An Image of Africa, Achebe points out Conrad's portrayal of Africans as basically speechless "rudimentary souls" (255) of Africa. Achebe identifies the two occasions when "Conrad confers speech on the savages" (255). "Give 'em! to us." "To you, eh?" I asked; "what would you do with them?" "Eat 'im!" he said curtly....
(Heart of Darkness). The first occasion refers to cannibalism, while the other occasion was the announcement of Mr. Kurtz's death. Clearly, both of these instances of speech serve Conrad's subverted vision of the Africans. The question for Achebe is "whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is no. No, it cannot" (An Image of Africa 257).
In spite of Achebe's fairly thorough condemnation of Conrad's motives in Heart of Darkness, the novel itself still remains a testimony to nineteenth century thought. Clearly, the book was written during a portion of the nineteenth century which was the period of colonialism, while Achebe and Things Fall Apart is representative of a post-colonial Africa.
During colonialism, the notion of Victorian virtue remained a component of English and European thought and culture. This Victorian trinity involved the notion of work, duty, and restraint. "Conrad wants both, to endorse the standard Victorian moral positives, and to express his forebodings that the dominant intellectual directions of the nineteenth century were preparing for disaster for the twentieth" (Watt 77). This conflict between the nineteenth and twentieth century is expressed by Conrad through his characterization of Marlow and Kurtz, and the tension or philosophical difference of the two. Conrad once said, "what makes men tragic, is not that they are victims of nature, it is that they are conscious of it..."(Watt 78).
I see Marlow's experience up the river, of the dark continent's Congo, as one which is indicative of an evolutionary process, a progression. While, I view Kurtz's response to this environment in opposite terms- Kurtz experienced a digression. The wilderness unleashed the beast within Kurtz which lay just underneath his prestigious Victorian facade of economic expansion in the name of progress. Kurtz purports to stand for the civilizing of the so called savages through economic progress and of course they will also benefit spiritually by way of the residue of his so-claimed Victorian posture.
I believe Conrad does succeed in effectively exposing the decrepancies between colonial pretence and reality. Keep in mind that during the 1880's and 1890's (the time-frame around Heart of Darkness), it was generally held by many that the Victorian World Order was collapsing. Conrad exposes this whole notion of educational, moral, and religious benefits, when he describes colonialism as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience and geographical exploration" (Heart of Darkness and Nineteenth Century Thought).
"She talked about weaning those ignorant millions from there horrid ways,'till, upon my word she made me quite uncomfortable. I ventured to hint that the company was run for profit" (Conrad 16). Here Conrad uses Marlow as his moral compass for what is really going on in Africa. While it becomes clear that Kurtz finds the tiger and ape within himself in Africa; and lets them loose. The frenzied Kurtz allows himself to do everything he wants to and claim the righteousness of God for doing it. Conrad once wrote,"Christianity is the only religion which with its impossible standards has brought an infinity of anguish to innumerable souls - on this earth." Therefore, we have reached a point of convergence that both Conrad (Colonial) and Achebe
(Postcolonial) can agree on. Man shall not be God.
There is life after postcolonialism. What happens after the imperialists are booted out? What happens to the colonized when they gain their independence? These are the kinds of questions that place us between postcolonialism and modernity.
There is a struggle going on in Africa. It is a struggle between the old and the new, between tradition and the hegemonic influences of the West (impact of neocolonialism.) It is a struggle which has resulted in the cultural dislocation and confusion of the African.
This struggle creates a kind of cultural schizophrenia. A cultural schism is created and within this schism dwells, isolation, alienation, loneliness, and dispossession. Achebe's second novel, No Longer at Ease, addresses this gap, and the fallout of the dislocating dilemma that faces modern African society.
No Longer at Ease, was published in 1960. It is set on the eve of Nigeria's political independence. The protagonist of the novel is Obi, the grandson of Okowkwo (of Things Fall Apart.) "As its title suggests, the novel explores the malaise of modern Nigeria: the uneasy coexistence of traditional ethos and European values and the absence of a coherent cultural framework that can give a firm direction to the country in general, and its educated elite in particular" (Parekh 23).
Obi goes away to England and receives an excellent education at an English university. He returns home and attains a prestigious Civil Service job. As Obi is unable to integrate his anglicized attitudes and indigenous values, he increasingly finds himself rootless and alienated in his own native country! "He rejects certain Igbo cultural practices, such as the caste system that ostracizes the osu; yet he does not have the moral courage to marry his girlfriend Clara, because his parents, violently object to having an osu daughter-in-law" (Parekh 23). Obi seems stuck (immobilized) between the past and the future, and this is precisely the dilemma that plagues many Africans in modern society. His failure to formulate a coherent set of moral values ultimately destroys him. He begins to accept bribes, which is a pervasive practice among government officials. He gets caught and the novel ends with Obi's conviction.
Obi's failure was the post-colonial failure to achieve the necessary synthesis of indigenous traditions and the imposed Western values into a coherent and functional system. While individually tragic, it becomes clear that this lack also operates on a community and national level.
Colin Turnbull addresses the feelings of disconnect which is so prevalent among Africans, in his book The Lonely African. Turnbull's book was published in 1962. Turnbull is an established anthropologist, who has made three extended field trips to Africa. He has written several books based on his research and field work. Turnbull was born in London and studied at Oxford, where he studied anthropology, specializing in the African field.
Turnbull quite adequately describes the dilemma of the African. He says, "there is a void in the life of the African, a spiritual emptiness, divorced as he is from each world (old and new), standing in between, torn in both directions. To go forward is to abandon the past in which the roots of his being have their nourishment; to go backward is to cut himself off from the future." Turnbull continues,"the African has been taught to abandon his old ways, yet he is not accepted in the new world, even when he has mastered its ways. There seems to be no bridge, and this is the source of his terrible loneliness" (Turnbull xi).
Since the years of independence, many modern cities have sprung up in Africa. And it is in the urban areas of Africa where feelings of discontent and disconnect (the dilemma) is most pronounced. In these cities the westerner can live as though he was at home in his native country. He can eat the same food, and think the same thoughts, all while holding onto the same ideals.
To casual observers the Africans in these urban areas look and dress the same as the westerners; they speak the same language and take part in the same economic life. "But the Europeans are more at home in these African cities than the Africans themselves. The African is a stranger in his own land; he knows it; and the Europeans know it" (Turnbull 2).
This is a familiar scenario. It reminds me of the English imperialists in A Passage to India. There is a scene where Adela complains that they have seen nothing of India, but rather English customs replicated abroad. And of course, this is a recurrent theme or complaint about the long arm of British colonialism (the British Empire.) The British attempt to turn all of her colonial holdings into a microcosm of itself, is viewed as a sort of unwanted contamination of the indigenous culture. In fact, it soon becomes apparent in "A Passage to India," that an Anglo and Indian are much more likely to be friends in England than India. This kind of a paradox is also applicable to the modern experiences of Africans.
As I've stated, Europeans are quite comfortable living in the modern urban areas of Africa. This European convenience has included separate eating and traveling facilities, separation wherever possible because there is no need to meet the African socially. This separation is degrading for the African because he has as much pride and self-respect as the European.
The fact that, there are some Africans who are fortunate enough to be able go abroad (to the first world) and study at a London University in England is and seems like a wonderful thing. Ironically, most of these same Africans found when they returned home; that even though they were in many cases better educated than many Europeans in Africa; they found that they still were not accepted as equals to them. They have found themselves being offered jobs well below their educational level because many of the Administrative positions and higher jobs were for Europeans only. Ironically, they also found themselves socially segregated at home (Africa), whereas they had lived in England (the first world) relatively free from the social barriers that prevent interracial contact.
Similarly, through the character Chacko, in "The God of Small Things," it becomes fairly obvious that he and his wife and child, Margaret and Sophie Mol, could live a significantly less problematic life in England (the first world) than they could have in India. In fact, in the post-modern period there exists the trend that people of color (the colonized) are going to the colonial countries which once colonized them. They often, as my previous examples show, find a more satisfying and more beneficial life in the country of their former colonizer.
This I believe brings us to the New World Order or what is aesthetically referred to as post-modernism. Post-modernism is generally representative of the first world; it gives a sense of being at the end of history. In a sense, as far as literature is concerned mostly everything has already been done. We are a long way out from Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). Post-modern novels are typically non-heroic while emphasizing marginal characters. Many consider it to be the literature of exhaustion. Literature that re-works previously done literature. I believe there is an element of determinism in the postmodern.
Being at the end, signals a new beginning. This course from colonialism to post-colonialism to modernity and to post-modernity and it has made me realize that there is something cyclical about the so-called end of history. Often at the end of a journey we do not end quite where where we thought we would have.
Achebe, Chinua. "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Ed. Robert Kimbrough. New York: Norton, 1963. 251-62.
---. No Longer at Ease. New York: Dell, 1960.
---. Things Fall Apart. New York: Dell, 1958.
Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. New York: Norton, 1963.
Nelson, Emmanuel. "Chinua Achebe." Postcolonial African Writers. Ed. Pusha Parekh. Westport: Greenwood, 1998.
Taylor, Willene. "A Search for Values in Things Fall Apart." Understanding Things Fall Apart. Ed. Solomon Iyasere. New York: Whitson, 1998.
Turnbull, Colin. The Lonely African. Garden City: Simon and Schuster, 1962.
Watt, Ian. "Heart of Darkness and Nineteenth Century Thought." Joseph's Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 77-89.
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