Things Fall Apart, by the late Chinua Achebe, was one of the first books I read in college. (It hadn’t yet made it onto high-school reading lists.)
Two years before I arrived at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Achebe delivered his controversial Chancellor’s Lecture, titled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Decrying Joseph Conrad as “a thoroughgoing racist,” Achebe argued that Conrad’s famous novel dehumanizes Africans, rendering Africa as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.”
Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question 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, it cannot. I do not doubt Conrad’s great talents. Even Heart of Darkness has its memorably good passages and moments:
The reaches opened before us and closed behind, as if the forest had stepped leisurely across tile water to bar the way for our return.
Its exploration of the minds of the European characters is often penetrating and full of insight. But all that has been more than fully discussed in the last fifty years. His obvious racism has, however, not been addressed. And it is high time it was!