Getting To The Heart Of The Matter With 'Heart of Darkness'

College student and Audible scholar Ama Hagan confronts a controversial work about Africa and its deep impact on her.

Ever since I was in middle school here in Newark, I refused to deny my African roots or the fact that I am a young woman of African descent. The derogatory comments some launched at me just flew over my head. I loved my "burnt" skin, and I didn't see the same "ape" in the mirror that people saw in me or any other person with an African background. If you asked me where I am from I would proudly say, Ghana. People would laugh, but it did not faze me or make me want to change who I am or where I am from. It is an integral part of my identity.

As a young adult now, headed into my second year at Wesleyan University, my love for my cultural background has only grown and amusingly, so has everyone else's. The same people who laughed at my blackness and my "accent" now praise my chocolate skin and admire the cultural heritage that they see in me. "What a West African beauty you are," they now say. "I want my skin to be as dark as yours." Or, "What's that new African song that goes like....?" Many such flattering things are heaped on me now. It's as if they forgot that they used to hate me for what I am.

But when I've read about people like myself in novels I've always been aware that the depictions are not always so positive. Throughout all of my school years, I've read books talking about how my ancestors were kidnapped from their peaceful homes in West Africa and enslaved in a foreign land, forced into labor and degraded.

Since my university allows electives, I gravitated toward English courses that focused on the continent I love the most and stories told mostly by African authors. I expected the books in one of those classes to be phenomenal stories about the personal triumphs of African people. I was expecting stories I could identify with, and it seemed we were on that track -- until one novella shifted my perspective on everything.

I was appalled. 

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the most controversial piece of literature I have ever come across in my years of reading about African people, African history, or anything African. This novella is about an individual's recount of the journey he took to find a man in the Congo and the experiences that came with the journey. Marlow, the narrator, talks of the injustices against the Congo natives that he witnessed in the company stations he went to while in search of Kurtz, an important person within the ominous Company.

Discussions about this work from 1899 became very heated in my class. The students read it and were taken aback by such diction and word choice used in it. As the African American woman that I am, I was offended to see the Congolese people described as "black shapes" and "savages," and it seemed to clearly signal that the long-deceased Polish-British author viewed these black people as just that: savages. However, my professor did not agree. She believed that the word the writer's word choices were not proof of his racism. In fact, I had to rewrite an essay three different times because I argued that Conrad may in fact be racist, backing up my argument by citing derogatory comments from the book. My professor pushed me to rework my paper to where I felt I had to water it down to get a good grade, muting any mention of the racism I saw.

I was appalled. 

After having discussions with older students who had taken this class, I realized that they have all gone through this same argument with this same book. Students believed that this book did not portray Africans in an appropriate light and even disregarded them as humans. At the time, many of us didn't know that we were far from alone in our outrage. Chinua Achebe, considered by many to be the father of English-language African literature, has thoroughly denounced The Heart of Darkness and its author as racist. At my own college, a number of students have suggested that the book be removed from the course, but it remains. The professor feels that there is value in everyone confronting it at some point. 

That is something I can take to heart and will continue to evaluate. But I still believe that putting Africans to brutal labor, dehumanizing them, and even sticking their severed heads on poles in front of your station is indeed controversial and racist

Hearing the story might have softened the impact for me...

I decided to revisit the novella on my own this summer to see if my initial opinion of it would change somehow. I did enjoy Kenneth Branagh's narration of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which surprised me. It sounded more like I was sitting in a room with him as he was telling me a story of his journey to find Kurtz. This narration displayed the eerie experiences of Marlow from the time he boarded the ship to the time he reached the interior of Africa. The listeners could truly imagine what Marlow saw, as well as what was running through his mind, because of how well Branagh narrated it -- as if he were there and experiencing it himself. When Branagh repeated the most iconic words in the novella, "The horror! The horror!," it became all the more ominous.

Hearing the story might have softened the impact for me but the moving narration and the fact that this novella was written from the point of view of a bystander does not change the fact: it is still offensive to Africans. It is simply too hard to dismiss Marlow's passiveness throughout the novella, seeing these people labor and undergo brutal treatment and not moving to stop it, but only moving to write about it.

Now I understand so much more about how a story can have an important effect on its audience, yet still be incredibly controversial.


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