Racism in Heart of Darkness?

Racism in Heart of Darkness?

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"Liberty without learning is always in peril; learning without liberty is always in vain"

John F. Kennedy

Achebe and Watts are two great writers, which argue over a very important point. Is Joseph Conrad racist? This question has led to the discussion; should his book, Heart of Darkness, be taken off of the schools reading list? This issue I shall address; yes and no, Joseph Conrad is racist. It depends on how you look at it. Should this book be removed from the reading list? Again it is how you look at it. It is my duty as President of this college to make sure that the students here get the Liberal Arts Education that they are paying for. The books that are taught in college are supposed to provoke thinking and allow the student to see a new perspective. The book will not be removed from the list but to whom and how it is taught shall be.

"And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth." These are Marlow's first words in Heart of Darkness. This quote was spoken about the Thames River, the main river running through England and this suggests that the United Kingdom, along with England, was once like Africa a dark place full of mystery and "savages." Over time the U.K. over came, with the help of the Romans, its inner darkness and flourished to become an "enlightened" civilization. Africa is full well in its darkness at the end of the 19th century. The people of the U.K. see themselves as modern day Romans and go into Africa to conquer its darkness and to civilize the "savages." This is where the racism comes from, a civilization seeing itself as superior to another.

In order for us to determine if Joseph Conrad was racist or not, we have to take a look at the society that he lived in. Around the turn of the century England was at the height of its power and was spreading its influence every where. As England starting spreading its power, it felt the need to "civilize savages" mainly this meant the people of Africa. Since the people of England saw Africans as inferior of course it reflected in how they talked and acted towards them. This is what leads to Achebe's stance that Conrad is racist. An Image of Africa is Achebe describing why Conrad was racist. In this paper Achebe says that Africa is "set up" as a foil, opposite to Europe, by Conrad.

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This is not a new feeling he says; "Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which better than any other work that I know displays that Western desire and need to which I have just referred to." This is to say that the society that Conrad was brought up in thought it self superior then Africa. This is why we had to look at early 20th century England, so that we may see that not just one person thought this way, it was the culture of the time. Achebe also says this about Conrad's Heart of Darkness; "Of course there are whole libraries of books devoted to the same purpose but most of them are so obvious and so crude that few people worry about them today." Achebe admits that Conrad's book is an important one and that is why we are taken a look at it right now. Achebe thinks that Conrad is a `thoroughgoing racist' but if we look at the terms that he uses most commonly, like nigger, we might see differently.

For us to understand the word nigger we must first try to find out where it comes from. According to Wikipedia the online encyclopedia, "The word `nigger' originates from the French nègre or perhaps from Dutch and German neger, all derived from the Latin adjective niger, meaning black. In English, neger became `negar' and finally `nigger.'" As we see the word is the same as what we commonly call Africans today, they are "black." Yes the word can be used in a derogatory manner, but this was common place at the turn of the century. Not every one thinks that Conrad was a racist author, Cedric Watts defends Conrad in his own paper "'A Bloody Racist': About Achebe's View of Conrad"

To quote Conrad directly; "They howled and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces... Ugly. Yes it was ugly enough." This is Marlow describing what he is seeing the Africans doing while he is traveling on the boat up the river. Watts says; "that any one that has read Achebe's book, will be familiar with the historical and sacramental import of these actions. Marlow, however, cannot be blamed for lacking Things Fall Apart ...Conrad is offering an entirely plausible rendering of the responses of a British traveler of c. 1890 to the strange and bewildering experiences offered by the Congo." As we can see Conrad was only trying to write his character so that the readers would believe him to be real. Would this be such a great book if it were censored? We can't tell. Since we can't censor the book itself we have to change something else so that every one is pleased.

Although Heart of Darkness has racial discriminations and is on our college book list, the maturity level for reading it and understanding it may not be suitable for any one that is not in college. High schools should not have this book on their list because the students may not have the capabilities to deal with such a blatant attack on another race. The students here in college have chosen this knowing full well that it is a Liberal Arts college. We are not going to remove the book from the list but we will put a disclaimer in the classes description warning that a class material has "racial slurs", a student need not take a class with this disclaimer seeing as there are several different professors teaching a single subject.

A Liberal Arts Education teaches the students to learn more about the world then just their specific major, this is to promote leadership and well roundedness. This is to say that the students should see all the points of view and it should not be limited or censored. To do this may create in an individual ignorance and bigotry. In a leader these traits are not preferable at all; in fact in any kind of person these traits are commonly not preferable. As John F. Kennedy said; "Liberty without learning is always in peril; learning without liberty is always in vain." Once we start blocking from study one book, it could turn into two books and eventually we would be blocking books that need not be blocked for any good reason. We cannot block what the students come here to learn. Albeit there are racial slurs and negative comments about the Africans, but you have to take into account the time that it was written.

Yes and no, Joseph Conrad is racist. We have looked at several different reasons to support each answer and have come up with; yes he is racist even if he doesn't think about it. But at the same time he isn't racist in that he is just trying to tell a tale of a traveler from the 19th century England and that the thoughts and actions of the main character should be expected from some one of his time period. The terminology used by Marlow was that which was commonplace in his period of time. In the 21st century even the words "black" is becoming offensive Africans that are born here in America, they prefer African Americans. The college will post a disclaimer and remind all enrolling students into the class, which uses Heart of Darkness is taught, that one of the core books has racial implications and should not taken lightly when reading. In a Liberal Art Education it is necessary for a student to study all points of view in order that they may lead in any situation.

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