A Whited Sepulcher: Shedding Light on the Heart of a Colonial Classic

The United States is entrusted with educating nearly fifty million American children each year. (National Center for Education Statistics , 2012) By nearly every measure, the system is failing. It should come as no surprise that the curriculum is outdated; even detrimental to the students it is intended to enlighten. The revolutionary ideas proposed by educational reformists such as Paulo Freire and John Dewey have been largely ignored by the institution as a whole, and rather the stale, often racist, sexist and classist curriculum continues to muddy the minds of the American youth. (Savery, 2006) Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is an antiquated interpretation of colonialism, rooted in the racially charged time in which it was written. Still, it shows up in the curriculum of nearly every State Board of Education’s approved fiction list for grades nine through twelve. (State Of New York, 2011) The use of this novella, as a staple in the curriculum for the United States’ public education system, is representative of a larger systemic failure to eradicate institutionalized racism from the American public sector.

Heart of Darkness is a short novel by Polish-Ukrainian author Joseph Conrad. It is the story of a young European man in the late 1800s that embarks on trip to the Belgian Congo with a trading company. The novella is elegant and poetic in its artistic contrivance and is written as a “story within a story”. This writing style provides two degrees of separation between Conrad and the protagonist, but many believe that this is actually a semi autobiographical story. The narrator follows the protagonist up the Congo River in search of an ill captain in the trading company and focuses superficially on the anecdotes that occur along the way. In the formulaic style of The Catcher in the Rye or Into the Wild, Heart of Darkness is about a young white man who struggles with understanding the world at large and the question of sanity as it pertains to societal roles. Though commendable thematically, it is in the execution that Conrad’s novella proves inappropriate and detrimental to American youth of African heritage. 

Acclaimed author Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” condemns Conrad’s novella as manipulatively racist. He states:

“Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness... better than any other work that I know displays that 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 manifest.” (Achebe, 1988)

Further, he notes that the reason that this novella is so deplorable is that Conrad is essentially writing a story about the brutality of colonialism, while simultaneously embodying the racist European white men responsible for the oppression of the African people. The audience is exposed to ornately verbose racism under the guise of its antithesis when reading Heart of Darkness; like consuming a poison labeled as an antidote. Achebe argues that this type of writing is more detrimental than the overtly racist literary works of that time period because it is not so easily dismissed.  To this day, Heart of Darkness is the most commonly assigned piece of 20th century fiction in American Universities. (Achebe, 1988) By definition this is institutionalized racism. 

Excerpts from this novella, which describe African people as significantly less than such, exemplify the racist undertone of Conrad’s entire work.

“The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us -- who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.”

 

“We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there -- there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.”

African people being described as “things” or as insane is common in this novel, but what is worse is that they predominantly serve as a mere setting, a backgroud for the white protagonist. The African natives are not even thought lowly of, they are not thought of at all.  With two minor exceptions, the African people have no voice in Heart of Darkness. Conrad has the “Cannibals” speak only once, to further vilify and dehumanize them; and in one other instance an African person informs the protagonist of the death of a crewmember. In a novella set almost entirely in the Belgian Congo this exclusion is unforgivable. It should be noted however, that this serves as a perfect metaphor for the voice Africans and African Americans are denied in the contemporary curriculum of US public schools. 

Heart of Darkness is not altogether without merit; Conrad himself ponders the validity of claiming an individual corrupt, if the individual exists within a corrupt system. This concept is at the root of problem. Caucasian youth consistently are presented with adventurous and bold, albeit occasionally prejudiced, versions of themselves in curriculum. How can African American youth in the public school system play a leading role in society when they are presented as merely a backdrop, if at all, in their curriculum? 

The aforementioned educational reformist Paulo Freire would argue that they cannot. Freire believes that students cannot simply be objects in the educational process- they must first be subjects, because no one functions merely as an object in the context of their own life. (Ferreira & Ferreira, 2009) This concept is known as Liberation Education and is the foundation for the argument against teaching Heart of Darkness in public schools. Freire’s book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, provides a framework for the examination and complete overhaul of educational institutions as they are known in the United States. He makes clear that “the objective of the learning process is to liberate the participants from their external and internal oppression; to make them capable of changing their reality, their lives and the society they live in.” (Ferreira & Ferreira, 2009) The only way to improve the lives of marginalized populations is by giving them the opportunity and support they need to liberate themselves from their oppressors. 

 

By the same principle, it can be deduced that the opposite is also true: if African Americans are subjected to oppressive curriculum, in which they are viewed as barbarous and/or insignificant, they are not being provided with the tools necessary to liberate themselves and thus shackled by a legacy of oppression. Furthermore, Caucasian American students are being subjected to views of themselves as not only racist, but more intelligent, more powerful and more entitled than their African American peers. The combination of the oppression of Africans and African Americans in Heart of Darkness, and the manipulatively subtle glorification of the Caucasian oppressor, make this novella the quintessential example of institutionalized racism in America. By promoting a piece of literature that devalues, dehumanizes, and disregards its citizens’ of African heritage, the United States Department of Education is as ignorant and prejudiced as the protagonist in Conrad’s novella.   

The principles and elegant prose found in Heart of Darkness are not exclusive to Conrad; they can be found in novels by authors of many ethnicities, cultures, races and backgrounds. Insightful, and potentially more relevant work can be found by contemporary authors who are better able to relate to the vastly different world in which American youth are now living. The human condition- the struggle for identity, love, acceptance and adventure- is unchanging. The atmosphere that they occur in however is anything but static. If all students in the United States are expected to succeed they must all be given positive depictions of themselves, and people who look like them, in their required curriculum. This is far from a suggestion to forego learning about classic literature, or even painful and cruel parts of history; this is very specifically, a plea to understand the negative implications of teaching Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness in American public schools.

The most beautiful part of literature is that it implores the reader to be introspective; to analyze their place in the world. If the literature provided to African American youth continues to deny them a place in their own mind then they are essentially being stripped of their place in society. Roland Barthes said, “Literature is [the] question, minus [its] answer”. (Barthes, 2000) Perhaps what should be pondered is: Have we been asking the right questions?  

Works Cited

  • Achebe, C. (1988). An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'. In R. Kimbrough, Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism (pp. 251-261). London.
  • Barthes, R. (2000). Critical Essays. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
  • Ferreira, E. C., & Ferreira, J. P. (2009). EDUCATION FOR LIBERATION THE PAULO FREIRE METHODOLOGY. Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, St. Paul.
  • National Center for Education Statistics . (2012). Fast Facts. (U. D. Education, Producer) Retrieved February 5, 2013, from Institution of Education Sciences: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
  • Savery, J. (2006). Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions. Journal of Problem-based Learning .
  • State Of New York. (2011). English Language Arts Resource Guide. Retrieved Febraury 7, 2013, from http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/ela/pub/elaim.pdf