Africa: a Foil for European Superiority
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novel that is widely considered a classic; it is highly acclaimed, and taught in most high schools. Yet many people, including Chinua Achebe, a well regarded African writer, believe that Heart of Darkness should not even be considered a piece of art, let alone a classic; the reason being that Heart of Darkness exudes racism. However, this is not the true issue, for two reasons: first, racism was extremely prevalent, as well as acceptable, at the time, making racist elements, while still not tolerable, understandable. Second, this book unwittingly exemplifies a much larger issue, which is still present today: the need of the “civilized” to be superior in every way to other people whom they consider too be more savage.
Although people largely do not differentiate between the need to be superior and racism, with racism often seen as the result of this need, a large difference does, in fact, exist. While they are very similar, the need to be superior is broader, and something inherent to humanity, while racism is more specific, focused, and something that is learned. In other words, nobody wakes up one day as a racist, but people are always striving to be the best they can possibly be; and for the most part, there is nothing wrong with that: being the best is generally considered a good thing, as it should be. However, in this particular instance, there is nothing more revolting or unjust than the way in which people make themselves “the best.” It is “The thought of their humanity-like yours… [But] Ugly” (Heart of Darkness 108-109). Here, rather than being the best through ability, the “civilized” assert their superiority in their minds, not through actually being the best, but simply by seeing themselves as superior to the African in every way; seeing African society as an “Ugly” (Heart of Darkness 109) and distorted version of their own.
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This is where the superiority complex can be mistaken for racism, but a difference still remains, as this view of Africa is not based off of skin color, which isn’t of the slightest concern, as they could be any color, including white, and the result would be the same. Rather, it is the clear difference in the social structure that allows people to easily differentiate between Africa and the “civilized” world, which in turn allows people to believe that their way of life is better. This sense of superiority springs not from racism, which is often just an excuse to mistreat or take advantage of another race, but from the human need to be the best, with Africa providing the perfect backdrop for comparison. Unfortunately, this has caused Africa to suffer.
In Chinua Achebe’s essay, “An Image of Africa,” Achebe’s main focus is to point out the racism, in Heart of Darkness, and argue against its merit as a classic. However, this is not his only focus, and in the beginning, Achebe makes a small point which far exceeds the importance of his main argument, the point being that the west, along with Europe, needs to see Africa as “a place of negations, at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (An Image of Africa 2). People need to see Africa as a place of darkness and savagery, because it is this that allows them to be “superior” and in the time that Joseph Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness, doing that meant depicting African cultures as savage and ugly:
It was unearthly, and the men were-no, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it-the suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled and leaped and spun, and made horrid faces (Heart of Darkness 108.)
This passage depicts Africans not as they were, but as people want, even need, to see them. Without this depiction, people lose their superiority, and that is why to this day, much of Africa’s History remains shrouded in darkness, because our need to be superior is still present, and to remove the veil is to remove our superiority, and for most people, that simply does not work.
The need for people to be superior is the root to some of the biggest atrocities and injustices dealt by humanity to this day. People need Africa to be savage, they need it to seem horrible to give them a positive outlook on how far they’ve come, causing Africa to suffer as a result. One could argue that this need is far worse than racism, yet this issue remains untouched while people protest and fight racism daily; it stands to reason then, that simple human decency would demand we fight this desire to place ourselves above other people, and right the wrongs which it has caused.