Was Joseph Conrad a Racist?

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Is it fair to call Joseph Conrad a Thoroughgoing Racist?

To call someone a thoroughgoing racist is to say that they are a person who completely and knowingly considers one race of humans superior to others. This is precisely what Chinua Achebe is accusing Joseph Conrad of. It is Achebe’s opinion that Conrad wrote his ‘Heart of Darkness’ from a racist point of view intentionally to belittle Africa and its people and to raise up Europe and its people. While I agree that Joseph Conrad may have been a racist and that ‘Heart of Darkness’ certainly has racism in it, I believe it unfair to call Conrad a thoroughgoing racist. Conrad is simply a victim of his time, having lived from 1857-1924 when the racism against Africans was widespread, even considered normal. He was not intentionally trying to be racist.

“It is the desire- one might even say the need- of Western psychology to set up Africa as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (Achebe, 1). In other words, Europeans want to directly compare Africa to Europe in a way that the ‘darkness’ of Africa makes Europe seem lighter. This shows that Conrad may even not have been racist at all. He could be simply writing a novel that the people wanted at that time. Achebe even briefly states this as a possibility: “It might be contended… 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, 4). This is my opinion of Conrad. He was not actually a racist. He was a brilliant storyteller of fiction that knew the people who would be reading the book. In that time period, most readers were racist against Africans. That was OK back then. Conrad didn’t agree with it but he wrote a short novel highlighting it to appease the masses, while subtlety showing how wrong racism is. “Heat of Darkness projects the image of Africa as “the other world,” the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. The book opens on the River Thames, tranquil, resting, peacefully “at the decline of day after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks.” But the actual story will take place on the River Congo, the very antithesis of the Thames. The River Congo is quite decidedly not a River Emeritus. It has rendered no service and enjoys no old-age pension. We are told that “going up that river was like back to the earliest beginnings of the world.” (Achebe, 2).

The Heart of Darkness mentions ‘the race that peopled its banks’ on the River Thames and then later talks about the people who people the banks of the River Congo. “There you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly and the men were… No they were not inhuman. Well, you know that was the worst of it- this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. 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. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough, but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you- you so remote from the night of the first ages- could comprehend. (Conrad, 153).

This passage is a direct comparison of the “savages” in Africa to the “civilized” in Europe. Yet there is a connection, a “kinship,” between these two beings. Conrad knows that Europeans love to view Africans as these uncivilized brutes in order to make themselves look better; but then he slips in that the two peoples are actually of the same...
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