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By Kaye

In “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness”, Achebe discusses elements such as racism, “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensive mystery”, moral ambivalence, dehumanization of Africa and Africans, and the concepts of culture and identity. Conrad writes about the ivory trade, natural resources exploitation, colonialism and madness using word embellishment and Achebe (1976) does corroborate that in his essay “An image of Africa”, “I would not call that man an artist, for example, who composes an eloquent instigation to one people to fall upon another and destroy them. No matter how striking his imagery or how beautiful his cadences fall, such a man is no more a great artist than another may be called a priest who reads the mass backwards or a physician who poisons his patients” (p.9)

The cultural and identity elements in Conrad’s work addressed by Achebe has to do with the Western image of Africa. Interestingly, one can link Achebe’s thoughts with Clark’s (2008) explanations of the term ‘new racism’, in which inferiority and biological difference are not as important as cultural differences. The idea of cultural identity is so rooted with individuals that it is impossible for two cultures to co-exist (p.518). Achebe expresses those cultural and identity elements as desire or even needs of “the Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe”; dehumanizing Africa and Africans throughout history, denying their culture and undermining African people. Even when some sort of humanity is expressed by Marlow in the novel, it is nothing but social conventions of half decent liberal Englishmen who are “required” to be shocked when witnessing atrocities that characterized the time in which King Leopold ruled Belgium.

Achebe also talks about moral ambivalence when he mentions the missionary Albert Schweitzer, “The African are my brothers, but my junior brothers”, one can clearly realize how the missionary judges the African as being inferior or in need of civilization, when in reality, Africa and Africans have rich cultural and artistic elements that were appreciated by artists; for instance, there is the “mask that had been given to Maurice Vlaminck in 1905”, and that consequently inspired other artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Vollard (p. 12) Last but not least, Achebe highlights the matter of “ adjectival insistence” that the English critic F.R Leavis addressed. According to the author, Conrad’s “insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensible mystery” call into question artistic good faith since it assails the reader with emotive words, almost like a hypnotic process.

I agree with Achebe’s assessment that Western literature misrepresents Africa and that unfortunately a lot of us still live the consequences of the preconceived image of Africans. I strongly believe that Achebe has a point in his essay “An image of Africa” and that he successfully demystifies the Western view of Africa in both of his works: “Things fall apart” and “An image of Africa”.


Clark, Simon “Culture and Identity.” The SAGE Handbook of Cultural Analysis.  (2008):  Aug. 16 2014. <Http:/www.sage-ereference.com/view/hdbk_culturanalysis/n24.xml>

Chinua, Achebe. “An Image of Africa”. Research in African Literatures, Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15. 1978), pp. 1-15.