An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s
Heart of Darkness
Chinua Achebe, 1975
Chinua Achebe (born 1930) is a Nigerian novelist, professor and cultural critic.
He is best
known for his first novel
Things Fall Apart
(1958), which is the most widely read book in modern
In the fall of 1974 I was walking one day from the English Department at the University of
Massachusetts to a parking lot. It was a fine autumn morning such as encouraged friendliness to
passing strangers. Brisk youngsters were hurrying in all directions, many of them obviously
freshmen in their first flush of enthusiasm. An older man going the same way as I turned and
remarked to me how very young they came these days. I agreed. Then he asked me if I was a
student too. I said no, I was a teacher. What did I teach? African literature. Now that was funny,
he said, because he knew a fellow who taught the same thing, or perhaps it was African history,
in a certain Community College not far from here. It always surprised him, he went on to say,
because he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff, you know. By this time I was
walking much faster. "Oh well," I heard him say finally, behind me: "I guess I have to take your
course to find out." A few weeks later I received two very touching letters from high school
children in Yonkers, New York, who -- bless their teacher -- had just read Things Fall Apart .
One of them was particularly happy to learn about the customs and superstitions of an African
I propose to draw from these rather trivial encounters rather heavy conclusions which at first
sight might seem somewhat out of proportion to them. But only, I hope, at first sight.
The young fellow from Yonkers, perhaps partly on account of his age but I believe also for much
deeper and more serious reasons, is obviously unaware that the life of his own tribesmen in
Yonkers, New York, is full of odd customs and superstitions and, like everybody else in his
culture, imagines that he needs a trip to Africa to encounter those things.
The other person being fully my own age could not be excused on the grounds of his years.
Ignorance might be a more likely reason; but here again I believe that something more willful
than a mere lack of information was at work. For did not that erudite British historian and Regius
Professor at Oxford, Hugh Trevor Roper, also pronounce that African history did not exist?
If there is something in these utterances more than youthful inexperience, more than a lack of
factual knowledge, what is it? Quite simply it is the desire -- one might indeed say the need -- in
Western psychology to set Africa up 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
This need is not new; which should relieve us all of considerable responsibility and perhaps