Posted by : Halima Khait Tuesday, August 13, 2013

So after 13 years, I finally went back and picked up Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I was supposed to read it freshman year of college, but...well, anyway. One thing that did stick with me all these years was the discussion about racism in American literature that it sparked. So, after all these years, I decided to go back and see what my former classmates were talking about.

You can read more about the plot in the link I provided above, but in short, the story is about Marlow, a young steamboat captain, that is charged with rescuing Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader, from one of the ivory company's stations. Upon approaching the station in the heart of the Congo region, Marlow is attacked by natives. Later, the reader finds out that the attack was ordered by Mr. Kurtz who had come to relate to the natives. But this bond between Mr. Kurtz and the natives is portrayed as the result of the illness that eventually took Mr. Kurtz's life.

So, what made this book so racist?

Well, outside of the natives being referred to as nothing other than savages or niggers, they received this era's usual treatment of dehumanization. The African men who were mentioned in this novel were either childlike, driven by simple motivators like food or simply in place to serve white men. The reader never learns anything about these characters, not even something so basic as a name. We are simply supposed to take Conrad at his word - that African culture is savage and evil.

And after all this, the reader is subjected to a conversation between Marlow and Mr. Kurtz's fiancé that starts like this:

'You knew him well,' she murmured after a moment of mourning silence.

'Intimacy grows quick out there," I said.

These words could have been those of any war vet. But in this case, what was the war about?? Men who entered a region to enslave the people and take their resources?? One man who got sick while doing this and as a result turned on his own people?? Maybe it's a difference of perspective, but I see no validity in Marlow's feelings.

Furthermore, I see no validity in any of our great American classics that hold this perspective. I wish educators would stop inserting books like this and Huckleberry Finn and The Last of the Mohicans in our curriculums and calling it diversification. These "classics" do nothing but offer instruction on how to continue a culture of inequality. There have been countless novels published since the late 19th century. I think it's time we find value in these and redefine what it means to be a classic.

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