Tuesday, April 10, 2007

RACISM in classic literature?

Our Title Bout

Conrad vs. Achebe

After reading Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” which bandwagon do you jump on? Are you willing yet to take sides in this much-disputed, much-critiqued battle of writers?

Consider the following while making a significant post to http://baxterbloglhs.blogspot.com :

  1. What was your personal experience like while reading Heart of Darkness (HoD)? Were you offended by any of Conrad’s narrative or description? In retrospect, should you have been? Why?
  1. Do you agree with what Achebe argues in “An Image of Africa,” or do you take a different tack? Why?

Make your posts to the blog as you’ve done before, incorporating others’ comments in your responses.



Anonymous said...

1.) There were several places in HoD that I was offended. Generally they were times when the few white people in the area were treating the native "slaves" in horrible ways. It seemed silly that the natives were being enslaved by the white man. And the way that Conrad described the black people. As if they were pieces, not people.

2.) I don't know if Conrad really was racist. But I agree with Achebe. His writings defiantly had areas that were overly racist.

E. Brown

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to make an attempt to tell you I was deeply engrossed by Condrad's 'racism' in this book the first time I read Heart of Darkness. Yes, after reading An Image of Africa it was obviously made known to me all of the racist attitudes and subtleties towards black people, but I was still not convinced that Conrad was a flaming racist. Maybe I am just another sheltered Westerner that has the same mindset of saving the heathen in Africa.
When I read HoD I was much more enthralled with the depth that Conrad looks into the hearts and minds of westerners, and how he parallels that with the depth and darkness of the Congo. It was insightful and well written.

S. Baxamus

Anonymous said...

Most of Heart of Darkness did not offend me. I didn't see the portrayal of "savages" as a central issue. The characterizations of Africans, though they were undoubtedly racist (no disagreement there) seemed appropriate for the time, and I tried to read it in context. I did feel a lot of discomfort reading about the fireman--the "dog in a parody of breeches"--and I hesitated, while reading the story aloud to my mother, to use the word "nigger," because like most educated modern Americans I certainly would not use it in my speech. However, I feel that with any literature, the author's time and place must be taken into account.

Just as the word "nigger" in Twain's Huck Finn was an acceptable part of the language in use at that time, Conrad's Africans reflect accurately the stereotypes most Europeans held in the late 1800's/early 1900's. I don't see how you can blame an author for writing from the culture of the time in which he writes.

I do agree with Achebe that the reaction to racism in literature is often insufficient. Although I think it is overly defensive to censor such literature, the issue needs to be addressed. Otherwise readers, especially young readers, may well take the ideas out of context and make no distinction between what was acceptable in that time and what is acceptable today.

As an afterthought, I would pose a question to Achebe: What if the author had been black?

For example, if a white person had written THINGS FALL APART, I am 90% certain that someone would find it racist.

C. de Villier

Anonymous said...

I agree that the HoD was racists, but could Joseph have just been trying to describe the characters better? To show the difference between the white people and Africans helps describe the environment he is in. I think that while it was racists it also enhanced the story.
S. Holloway

Anonymous said...

I was not terribly offended when i read Heart of darkness i was a little shocked at some of the things that they did like just shooting into the bush to try and kill the "enemies" (78)but i think it would have been rather shocking that they were shooting at anyone like that, and although Conrad used different words than i certainly would have to describe the African people i thought it was because of the time that he lived in we have been raised to see those kind of descriptions as offensive to others but it was the common thought process of people back then, i think people are taught how to talk about and treat other people.

a quebbeman

Anonymous said...

Achebe is justified in saying that Conrad is incredibly racist. But then so are we all. When reading HoD I found the descriptions of the physical setting had more effect on me than the descriptions of the frenzied natives. I feel this is exactly the point Achebe was trying to make--the dehumanization of the African is so commonplace that it doesn't even cause a stir in the typical western reader.

E Brown-I have to contest what you're posting. First you say that Conrad describes "black people as if they were pieces, not people" but then go on to say the you don't know if Conrad was racist. Another point given to Achebe: Considering "black people as pieces" is accepted that you don't even consider it a claim for racism.

-K Johnson

c de villier: good question to pose at the end. That will take some serious thought.

Anonymous said...

What do you think of us Mr. Baxter?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the novel HoD because of the beauty with which it was written. Yes, I was affected by certain passages. I dislike racism (who in this class does not?) and the ignorance it implies, yet I’m not offended by the book as a whole. It’s hard to accept the concept of people being portrayed as animals and primitive beasts, humans with the humanity removed. However, HoD isn’t simply a racist, white supremacist novel. Yes, those are topics that are addressed, by that does not summarize the book in its entirety. Conrad uses this novel to delve into various aspects of human nature. Like we discussed in class, his juxtaposing “civilized” and “primitive” settings seems to highlight their similarities more than their differences. We are all “primitive” at heart… we are all human, but just differ by culture and location. Plus, Conrad hints at a “kinship” between the two vastly different worlds. Marlow at points seems to be questioning the racism that was so deeply instilled in him through his culture and society. He realizes, although maybe not happily, that he is connected to the people he encounters. As he mourns the loss of his helmsman, we see a bond-- human bond. I’m not offended by this book because I enjoy the insight it provides. I understand Achebe’s utter disgust for the book and its prevalence, but I don’t agree with it.
m. abesa

Anonymous said...

I had a hard time with the essay because it didn't seem to give a lot of solution to the problem. Ettinger always says if our society would realize how racist it it is, that would become the first step to having the ability to change. I guess the real question is how do we change? if you work hard not to be racist you end up being racist the other direction, so how do we change ousrslves without being fake?

I noticed a lot of racist comments the first time thru Heart of Darkness, but I had attributed it more to the time period and the character than the author. I had never really thought about how well the author hid.

I think black people can be as racist as white people can, if we look at Dubois he was incredibly racist towards low class blacks. The same way we are racist against low class whites. It's an interesting question christina....but no this probably wouldn't have been an issue if conrad had been black.
-a whitt

Charlie said...

Reading The Heart of Darkness did not affect me in such a way that I was not offended. An Example would be Huckleberry Finn; the main character Huck used the word nigger on almost every other page. It did not anger or upset me because Huck did not have the hatred that usually comes with the word. I think that it is not so much the fault of the character but defiantly that of societies.

In The Heart of Darkness the main character is also somewhat like Huck in the way that he does not have really a racist view but that it is his upbringing. They have always been called niggers and always thought as less than human. Marlow is definitely not racist. His views are of someone who has racist ideals but has never put them into effect. His actions contradict his preconceived notions in that he considers the lesser beings as being more than just dogs. I may be romanticizing Marlow/Conrad’s opposite view in comparison to society far too much but there defiantly is a tone that quantifies my view.

I really was not offended by Conrad’s because I have faith in that as a race we have moved farther away from our own Heart of Darkness.

R. Vaniea

Anonymous said...

In this day, there should be no fight, no argument about racism. It existed. It still exists. By formulating rage-filled commentaries, you are only perpetuating the long struggle to break down racial thoughts. By confronting someone about race, you are admitting that you are still a slave to racial prejudices. What is race but a species? What are humans but one species? We only break apart in our own thoughts and ineptitude when faced by diverse situations.
To me, the Heart of Darkness presents the inability of people to cross cultures, the stubborn lack of being able to face diversity. This lack eventually led to the breaking up of some person's mind (Kurtz).
Conrad's story, as told through the eyes of Marlow, a fictional character, shows the way that one's preconceptions are hard to change.
Marlow seemed less racist than what one would think of as an average European in the nineteenth century. His inexperience with African culture was the cause of mystery in the book, not the thought that Africans are "inhuman mysteries of the World".
As to offense, I did not feel any. I hold no racist hatred and have a hard time bending stories in order to make them sound racist.

T. Dixon

Anonymous said...

I just have to wonder if writing about people as animals is an acceptable trade-off for a "good novel" that delves into the human psyche.

k johnson

BBAXLHS said...

I have to agree with those who think Achebe is bringing the argument up for the sake of anger, outrage, or disgust, rather than taking a tack that might actually be more conducive to changing the status quo. You have to keep in mind that Achebe didn't give this speech yesterday -- it was in the 1970's (so much nearer the big fight for civil rights). Does that make a difference in how his argument sounds to you today?

To whom it may concern: I think you're swell.

Kirsten's last question is one that I hope you'll all consider. Is it ever worth the trade-off?

Anonymous said...

I was offended by some of the descriptions in HoD, but nothing that I take to heart. I'm not the kind of person to get offended easily. I think I should have been more offended, but then again I have heard and read more offensive things. The reason why I should have been more offended is because Conrad is basically insulting the people of the Congo. And insulting anyone for any reason is offensive.
I am on the fence with Achebe's argument. I agree but I don't agree. Conrad was giving his opinion of what he saw, but he was too vulgar about it.

M. McDougall

Anonymous said...

At the time of reading H.O.D, I hadn't really thought about Conrad being racist and of the racist comments he made, I basically looked the other way and didn't pay a whole lot of attention to them. I was mostly focused on the voyage itself. As for Achebe's perspective, I can't really say that I disagree with him because he had a good argument and did give examples to back himself up. He really did open up the idea for me, it gave me more insight on the topic.
T. Rhodes

Anonymous said...

I agree with molly in the fact that as she did notice the racist comments, she was not all that affected by them. That is generally the same way I felt. I looked at the story as a whole and not so much at the fact that Conrad was racist.
-T. Rhodes

Anonymous said...

For the most part Heart of Darkness did not come off as offensive to me. Racism toward Africans is part of our American and English history. This book was written close to a century ago, during a time when racism was accepted and a way of life. I'm not excusing Conrad's attitude, but its something thats part of us and our nation. We cannot hide it, or brush it under the rug as if nothing happened. We need to be able to learn from it and move on. Their portrayal of African Natives being "Savages" was what they knew, they were too ingorant to know any different.
Just because a person reads something offensive and so bluntly racist, it doesn't reflect what they believe. When this book is given to students, the students need to realize and understand how deeply wrong Conrad's perceptions are. They should be strong enough and educated enough to understand the differences between the right and wrong in this book.
A. Younggren

Anonymous said...

T Rhodes,
It is amazing how two people can have the exact same view on a certain topic. Although people say how racists this book was, it is only certain parts. But then again, you have to look at the time period of which this short novel was written. So in the end, the novel wouldn't have been so "offensive" in the first place, but now it would be. That is the only reason why Achebe decided to write "An image of Africa" or he had nothing better to do.
M. McDougall

Anonymous said...

After reading "An Image of Africa" I became aware that some might consider the narrative elements of "Heart of Darkness" to be a large issue of racism. While reading the novel, I was not particularly struck by the "racist" remarks of Conrad. I think critics of the novel are too sensitive to the issue of racism in novels. They are also too quick to make assumptions as to the intent of the author. One must consider the origin of the author and the time in which the story was written.

I agree with a previous post by one C. de Villier that if, in fact, the author had been black, the critics' views of the novel being racist would be significantly different.

m austin

Anonymous said...

McDougall, you said that during the time HoD was written it would not have been offensive. You mean for the European people right? Achebe, in the 1970's, had the platform to say what he said but I am sure he would have been just as offended if he had read HoD when it was first published.

L. Ackerman

Anonymous said...

the racism of HoD didn't strike me right away, but the more i'd think about a passage after i read it, the more i would think that that wasn't a kind thing to say. what struck me quicker was how sexist some of the passages were, like when the accountant-in-white was talking about how he trained a native woman to wash his clothes properly. to me that comment held all sorts of negative connotations of how he might have trained her. the reason i was more sensitve to the sexist comments than the racist ones is because i'm a woman, but i'm also a white one. whether or not you find something offensive is purely subjective. so what i'm sensitive to would be different than what somebody else is sensitive to.

i don't think there is any arguable stand point to say that Conrad wasn't racist. I had a teacher say to me one time that you write how you are and that all pieces of literature are a look in to the writers psyche. there are way too many racist remarks, words, and ideas in HoD to argue that Conrad wasn't a racist (or a sexist for that matter).

it bothered me while reading of HoD that all of the natives were described as unintelligent. they might have been uneducated according to english standards, but they weren't stupid. there is a profound difference between being educated and being stupid, and conrad describes every single native as being stupid, instead of being someone he merely didn't understand. that alone is incredibaly racist, never mind all the other stuff in the book.

i think i would definatly side with Achebe, i don't really feel that much sympathy for Conrad's side.

A. Edmonds

Anonymous said...

I would have to agree with several people that while I was reading HOD I was more interested in the comparison of Africa to European society and the break down of Kurtz's mind than I was of Conrad's narrative and descriptions that could be considered grossly racist. My first impression of the book when reading it was that Marlow/Conrad was not racist, and he was instead mocking the fact that European society in that time period had similarities with that of the so-called "savagery" of Africa. Maybe I should have been offended by this writing, but at the time I was more interested in the psychological unraveling of the mind of Kurtz. Although understanding the criticism of HOD by Achebe and that racism (in any piece of writing) must be considered, I personally enjoyed the book.

R. Graham

Anonymous said...

The feeling I got from reading An Image of Africa is that the author wrote this piece out of anger. Yes, racism is horrible, but its also a big part of our past and present society.
I think a better tactic could have been used by the author. With the attitude he uses, his message doesn't come through to the reader in a positive way.
On the other side, considering that this piece was written in the 1970's I can understand the need the author had to get his message across loud and clear, even if he is very drastic in doing so. To get his message heard he needed something that would grab a persons attention, whether its for a good or bad reason.
A. Younggren

Anonymous said...

I never really found HoD particularly offending but I can clearly see how others would.
It was fortunate that I picked up King Leopold's Ghost shortly after reading Heart of Darkness. King Leopold's Ghost is an incredibly accurate historical novel on the history of the Congo and it should be noted that some of what Conrad describes is quite accurate. I don't think that Conrad "invented things" so that he could vent his anger to create a racist novel.

And as C. had said, what if Things Fall Apart had been written by a white person? For those of you who haven't read much of it, the main character regularly beats his wives. This was written by a black person, someone with, we assume, credible knowledge. In writing Things Fall Apart I think that Achebe may have been undermining his own efforts by trying to prove that black people are not what Conrad describes. What if two contrasting beliefs, two contrasting come to the same conclusions and descriptions? I'm not saying that I am taking all of what they wrote as fact. I'm just posing a question.

-P. McCarthy

Anonymous said...

Like many other people, I was disturbed when Conrad compared the man to a dog in pants. Sadly that was the only time I was really concerned. I don't think that flat outrage is necessary but wish I had noticed more. The major reason being that the racist ideas were wrong in the first placed and shouldn't be brushed off as "normal for the time".

I tend to agree with Achebe. I see racism as a problem no matter what time period it is from. I think the book still has value and should be used for teaching but perhaps in a responsible way (what ever that is).

L. Ackerman

Anonymous said...

When I first delved into Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", yes, I was stricken by the vulgarity of Marlow's descriptions. The natives were painted as heartless, man-eating animals and sometimes even inanimate objects, speaking of them as though they were solely black shapes with protruding white eyes.
But I forgave the soiled language because I considered it being the voice of the narrator, not of Conrad himself. I thought Conrad was merely trying to depict the popular sentiment during that time...I think someone else's blog mentioned Huck Finn and how it sparked controversy with its racist language.I don't see it as outrageous to compare Twain and Conrad as similar authors in that sense--both eager to produce a clear picture of how people were during those time periods, not sugar-coat it.If either one of those books had been written today I would understand a public outcry.
In response to Achebe's essay I did find it interesting how he mentions the distorted view the explorers have of a new land and culture. Marco Polo wrote at length of an area of China, yet he left out their unique art and even the Great Wall. This, to me, didn't support Achebe's essay as much as it gave another explanation.
...okay bell just rang.
can't finish my thought.

- G. Marrone

Anonymous said...

There was a word missing in my previous entry.

What if two contrasting beliefs, two contrasting AUTHORS come to the same conclusions and descriptions? I'm not saying that I am taking all of what they wrote as fact. I'm just posing a question.

-P. McCarthy

Anonymous said...

I didn't find the descriptions in HoD offensive, but viewed them as part of the story. It gives us insight on the kind of assumptions Europeans, in general, had towards African natives during the time period the story was written.

While you can argue validly that there is racism, that does not necessarily reflect the views of the author. It would be terribly ineffective to only write characters and opinions similar to yourself and the opinions you hold.

I agree that if Conrad was black, this probably would not be an issue. I think Achebe was turning HoD into a racism work just to help make his own point that it is a common thing, and is not discussed as much as it could be.

Reguarding Kirsten's question:
I do think it is an acceptable trade-off. You gain so much from writing something that invokes thinking and questioning in people. If you have to offend some readers in order to drive your point home, that's something I know I am willing to do, and hope that others are as well so that we don't lose what could very will be a great piece of literature.

C Burke

Anonymous said...

a lot of people have mentioned in their posts about how the time Conrad/Marlow lived in might of affected his views. I'm wondering if people really think that just because it was written in a time where racism was more socially acceptable, that that makes all racist comments and ideas in HoD justifiable?

also a lot of people who read this book when it first came out, probably knew very little about africans and the congo, do you think that a book like HoD, that we all admit has racist undertones, would have had an affect on how they thought about black people.

these are just a few questions i wanted to raise to the whole board

A. Edmonds

BBAXLHS said...

C. Burke said "It would be terribly ineffective to only write characters and opinions similar to yourself and the opinions you hold." Amen. If we limit Conrad OR Achebe to only create characters who represent them (the authors) and their views/attitudes, we've just made every liberal writer a bigot, sexist, racist, warmonger, you name it. Good writers create characters who can epitomize stereotypes or typical people in order to show an audience the variations in human experiences and conditions, but also to show us how similar we all are. Often, the most liberal writers are writing expressly to expose the quirks and indecencies and even downfalls of humankind. Do we then call them racists or bigots or homophobes? No, we praise them for showing us the error of our ways. So to speak.

I can appreciate A. Edmonds comments and questions about the time _HoD_ was written in. I think you may underestimate how difficult, and perhaps rare, it is to see beyond our own circumstances to avoid the pitfalls of societal constructs. That is the very reason some point at _HoD_ as an insightful exploration of just how exploitive Europeans were being at the time.

More ideas?

B. Baxter

Anonymous said...

After reading through these comments, I was a little shocked. I agree with L. Ackerman completely when she states that just because the racism was acceptable when the novel was written doesn't mean it's acceptable now. By any means.
And R. Graham - Conrad didn't "so-call" Africans savages. He paints a pretty clear picture of Africans as sub-human. Which I consider pretty racist. But maybe I wasn't understanding what you were trying to say.
A. Younggren - I don't agree that we should embrace the racism of the past because it was a part of our oh so beloved history.
P. Macarthy - I flipped back and forth with your comment about Achebe's character who beats his wife. At first, I don't think I understood what you were trying to say...now I think I do. In response: I haven't read the entire book yet. In fact, I'm only about 70 pages in. But it doesn't seem to me that Achebe is portraying Okonkwo as a hero in the story. Rather he seems to paint him as a ruthless and villainous character, not a norm for the society. Achebe is doing what Mr. Baxter referred to; pointing out the flaws in society by using a stereotyped or "extreme" character. I don't think Achebe was in any way endorsing wife-beating. In fact, quite the opposite. I also don't think that Achebe would even begin to claim domestic violence is limited to a race, unlike Conrad, who drew very specific connections between one's actions and one's race.

I hate to say it but reading through some of the comments I almost wanted to laugh. I mean, no kidding most of us weren't offended by the writing, didn’t think twice about the racism. We're white. I bet a lot of us would have felt differently about the book if a black man wrote this about whites.
K. Johnson