No admission – The Nation

For its racist tropes, the Novel, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, should be deleted from western canon of literature

Editorial This is an era for the pulling down of monuments. And it is not just the intimidating hulk of structures in human shape that are at stake today. Some of the monuments are in the mind, and they have polluted the culture for centuries and have been taken for granted as fixtures of human civilisation.

So, we don’t have to look at the statue of Lee, the confederate leader, of those of Colston in Bristol alone. Bristol waited for a righteous revenge during the Black Lives Matter protests and brought down the Colston statue, a major slave trader and Deputy Governor of the African Trading Company, who carted thousands of black lives on the seas in what was known as The Middle Passage. They made wealth often called generational wealth that their families still enjoy to this day.

Some of the peacocks of race then were John Hawkins, Francis Drake, Cecil Rhodes, etc. They have been celebrated over the centuries for their services to civilisation even though we know they have been activities at the expense of human lives and values, a dedication to savagery for profit, to the shedding of human blood, the mangling cruelty of torture plantations, the separation of families, the sexual predations, the commodification of black souls and chattelisation of a race of humans. The United States, for instance, is a civilisation built on the edifice of such an inhuman project but recalibrated as an adventure in liberty.

The Bank of England gave the world a mea culpa by an act of self-reproach when it confessed to its role in the evil by funding the barbarous era of undertaking human raids in Africa and moving the spoils to the Americas. The insurer, Lloyd’s, also followed up with its own confessions. These, like The United States are not monuments we can pull down, because they are not just statues but institutions that pervade and overwhelm, complicating the narrative of memory.

We can go on, but we know that it is also in the area of culture, whether songs, or film, or the written word. The Rugby game in England is blotting out the song Swing Low, Sweet Chariot for its slave origin. The well-known music group, Dixie Chicks, known for its southern appeal but also its defiance of the Bush administration for its invasion of Iraq, has decided to join the movement by excising Dixie from its identity. It is now called The Chicks. Gone with the Wind, a classic of western literature, which became one of the top five movies of all time from Hollywood, has been withdrawn by Disney because of its malignant tropes that perpetuate white supremacy.

Following from that, a piece of work goes deep into our African bones. It is a work of fiction known as The Heart of Darkness written by Joseph Conrad. One of the first to draw attention to this literary anomaly was Chinua Achebe who describes Conrad’s book as “racist.” He describes Conrad as an “easy-going racist.” It was one of the inspirations for his classic, Things Fall Apart. The novel has been absorbed, taught, read and celebrated as part of the western canon of literature. That means it is a model of culture and writing for the western civilisation.

In spite of its many woes, western critics and arbiters of good writing have been applauding it as a great work on colonialism. They praise it for unveiling the hypocrisy of the west, the cruelty of commerce and moral failure of the colonial idea. It is easy for them to do that without exposing it for the fundamental vice of racism, which undergirds the narrative and the whole colonial adventure in the first place.

A novel that praised a slave trader and buccaneer like Francis Drake along with others as names “like jewels flashing in the night of time…hunters for gold or pursuers of fame…bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of the spark from the sacred fire.”

The “spark” was the light of the British Empire that bore a civilising faith – the sacred fire – on the negroes. It is a novel that never calls the black man in the Congo, where the novel is based, as a man. They are called niggers and savages. A familiar passage was where a black character asks the white men to shoot black folks so he could “eat ’em.” This level of portrayal of the black man as hungry cannibals is not even addressed by the white critics. They merely pivot their analysis on the line where Conrad focuses on the “merry dance of death and trade.”

Examine the following lines: “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.” Conrad proclaimed the black man here as sub-human. He wrote that Africans had no concept of modern time but belonged to “the night of first ages.”

The man who sanctioned such an era of barbarism and racism in what some historians call the African Holocaust was King Leopold of Belgium. His statue was pulled recently. So should Conrad’s novel. He has written about other places, including Latin America. His Nostromo, a novel compared to the most ambitious of all novels, War and Peace by Tolstoy, does not portray Latinos in such derogatory language or narratives. Neither did his book on the East like his Lord Jim on the pratfalls of heroism. Why Africans became the target of a man with a prodigious gift for letters only emphasises the myth often encouraged by white guilt that only shallow people are racists.

We call for the Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to be blotted out of the western canon as a tribute to human dignity and equality of the black races with others on earth.

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