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African Heart, No Darkness | The Nation

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African Heart, No Darkness

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Home and Exile opens with Achebe's warm reminiscences of his home village in Igboland. Then he moves on to colonial Nigeria's University of Ibadan, to an episode that informed his career as a fiction writer. His European instructor assigned the class Mister Johnson, by the Anglo-Irishman Joyce Cary, a novel set in Nigeria that in 1952 Time called "the best novel ever written about Africa."

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James North
James North has reported from Africa, Latin America and Asia for four decades. He lives in New York City and tweets at...

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Achebe and his classmates disagreed heatedly, regarding the Nigerian hero, Johnson, whom their teacher considered colorful and comic, as unbelievable, a "bumbling idiot of a character." More fundamental, Achebe says, even though Cary seemed tolerant, his acclaimed book had "a certain undertow of uncharitableness just below the surface on which his narrative moves and from where, at the slightest chance, a contagion of distaste, hatred and mockery breaks through to poison his tale."

Years later, after Achebe had successfully published some of his own novels, he turned to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with an influential essay (included in Hopes and Impediments) that shook up the Conrad academic establishment. High school students in America are still being assigned this novella, their teachers probably embarrassed by Conrad's repeated references to Africa as a place of "black and incomprehensible frenzy" inhabited by "rudimentary souls" who make "a violent babble of uncouth sounds" instead of speaking, but who justify the book by explaining that Africa is merely the backdrop, the setting, for the dissolution of the European, Kurtz, who is the real villain of the tale.

For Achebe, this excuse is not good enough. He does not deny Conrad's "great talents," evidenced even in Heart of Darkness itself. But he vigorously criticizes using

 

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind? But that is not even the point. The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.

 

In Home and Exile, Achebe continues looking into the Western need to deny humanity to Africans. He cites the remarkable work of American anthropologists Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, who in The Africa That Never Was (1970) analyzed some 500 British books, tracing back the pattern of dehumanization 400 years, showing, as Achebe summarizes, "how a body of fantasy and myth about Africa developed into a tradition with a vast storehouse of lurid images to which writers went again and again through the centuries to draw 'material' for their books."

Achebe points out that the ugly literature originated to justify the slave trade. But, he continues, "on account, no doubt, of its enormous popularity as both sensational entertainment and a salve for the conscience, it also generated a life of its own, so that it did not simply expire when the slave trade was abolished at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but reshaped itself with the tools of trendy scholarly fantasies and pseudo-sciences."

In his essay on Conrad, Achebe anticipated some of the recent work in "whiteness studies," arguing about the need 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." And "the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa." So "Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray--a carrier on to whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate."

But Achebe is no apologist for life in Africa today. Here is what he said about his own country in The Trouble With Nigeria (1983): "It is one of the most disorderly nations in the world. It is one of the most corrupt, insensitive, inefficient places under the sun.... It is dirty, callous, noisy, ostentatious, dishonest and vulgar. In short, it is among the most unpleasant places on earth!"

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