Speech and racism in colonial literature

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 4 November 2016

Speech and racism in colonial literature

As Dennis Leary said, racism isn’t born, it is taught. Racism is a weapon able to denigrate and dehumanize people. “Racism has always been present in colonization especially soon after the Europeans colonized the New World, the idea of racial distinctions developed” (LaRocque). Still until today, the colonial attitude especially towards black people is due because of economic power. Many postcolonial novels show themes such as racism, abuse of power, violence and speech to show the perspective of both sides of the conflict; the black and the white. Literature is a gift because it allows people to shape their perspectives of the world. In the novels Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad readers are able to see the postcolonial literature perspective in similar stories from different sides. This essay will analyze speech in Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart in order to prove how Achebe’s novel exposes the racism found in Heart of Darkness.

Stories are important because they shape a person’s mind by influencing their lives. Stories arise out of a person’s belief and therefore cannot be disproven (“Comparing”). These both novels through stories portray issues in different societies and its complexity. Things Fall Apart is an amazing novel that shows the life of the Igbo tribe in Nigeria, Africa. The novel surrounds the main character Okonkwo, a tragic hero who refuses to accept the fate of his dead father but rather self-preserves himself. Through Okonkwo many themes are portrayed dealing with violence, masculinity and the importance of religion for the Igbo tribe.

Achebe’s novel shows in detail this society and thus the complexity of their way of living. Lgbo people are hardworking, religious, obedient and follow the calendar based on harvesting. This points the set of beliefs and systems that indigenous people of Africa have developed for their life’s (“Use”). Achebe also displays the role of men and women in society and how women are assign unimportant roles being men the power in the Igbo society. The importance of speech in the novel is prioritized as the author uses Igbo language thus creating a distinctive African story. It shows an image of Africa before colonialism changed it (“Use”).

In the other hand, Josephs Conrad’s novella acts more as a criticism comparing the civilized and the uncivilized. This shows the power of the white Europeans on their colonization in Africa. As its title, it shows the darkest side of humans by brutality and racism. The novella starts in the Nellie at the Thames River when the captain Charlie Marlow starts to narrate his stories about how he entered to Africa and his experiences. Marlow has always have passion for maps, exploring and adventure that is what begins his journey to a new and mysterious world; Africa. Through his stories we see the complexity of the African jungle and how this place influences the characters.

The only thing that inspires and drives Marlow is his desire to meet Kurtz, an admirable and respected agent. Through his experiences we can see the racism towards the black people and how European colonizers treated them. By the actions of many characters we perceive the ivory smuggling, the ambition of power and money and the evil hidden in the jungle. Therefore it shows darkness behind inhumanity and injustice to others. How this darkness is so powerful that can destroy others and the person itself (Conrad).

In both novels we see the importance of speech. Speech acts as a symbol of racism and the distance of language. In Things Fall Apart speech is very important as Achebe uses lgbo words in the novel. “By incorporating Igbo words, rhythms, language and concepts into an English text about his culture, Achebe goes a long way to bridge a cultural divide” (“Language”). This shows the complexity of the African culture and the misunderstanding between cultures. In this case being the lgbo culture and the ones of the colonists. Therefore Achebe’s incorporation of Igbo words makes his novel even more realistic because it gives the Africans a voice. It also allows the reader to learn more about its culture by understanding the meaning of these words.

We also see how organized and specific the dialect is relying on the rules to address to people. These words don’t make the reading harder but rather they make it more interesting basing on its context and how they are used. Also these words are crucial for the novel because if they are translated to English they might lose their concept. “To provide an authentic feel for lgbo culture would be impossible without also allowing proverbs to play a significant role in the novel” (“Language”). We can see how oral is important for the culture as there is plenty communication. In lgbo tribes messages are carried orally; stories, songs and tales told from families and basically the whole culture relies on oral tradition, never losing the uniqueness of their dialect.

It also proves how this culture is much more complex than it seems as there are many different languages within the 9 villages. It shows how two cultures come together as the novel being written in English but never losing the lgbo words. This also represents how certain aspects of cultures are never going to be understood because they are too complex for each other. Achebe plays with words carefully and allows readers to feel part in the story as these words play an importance in the emotions of the reader. “Achebe’s introduction of new forms and language into a traditional (Western) narrative structure to communicate unique African experiences forever changed the definition of world literature” (“Language”).

In contrast, in the novella Heart of Darkness speech is represented as silent. Silence marks the distance between the white colonizers and the African. Conrad is not giving speech to the Africans but rather marking the big space of the misunderstanding of cultures. “Here, the human is perceived to have no language, only a physical space and the surrounding nature support this with the muting darkness and unknowing silence along the riverbanks” (Lerch). This is a major issue because without speaking there is no understanding or knowledge. Language allows people to learn from each other, communication is fundamental.

This boundary leads to know people only by their physical in the case of the natives, one of the major causes of stereotypes and racism. “Speech suddenly proved inadequate for Conrad’s purpose of letting the European glimpse the unspeakable carving in their hearts” (Achebe). This acts as a symbol of power and superiority from part of the colonizers that can speak and hold the control. Natives are not given voice, opinion or the right to express themselves. The crash of cultures brings conflicts to the both sides as any of them know each other’s language. There is a constant absent of noise and only the sound of darkness fills it up.

Even though speech is silent in the natives, it plays an important and effective role in the story and characters in the novella. From the beginning the history is told from Marlow’s stories and experiences that he’s telling to the other members of the Nellie. “In western society, silence is something to be filled. “Language is a euphemism, a saving life for all the Europeans” (Lerch). Marlow’s communication forms part of the Chinese box technique that is the story inside another story. His expressions, detailed descriptions, images and emotions transport us to the past, to the heart of darkness. Speech according to characters is seen in various ways, from much too little speak.

This represents the personal importance of speech for each character and how it varies depending on the personality and interest of the character. For example speech in Kurtz is represented as insanity because of the lack of understanding and isolating from society (“Heart“). However it is positively as it is the link Kurtz has with the natives that is what brings him closer to them and therefore being recognized as the leader of the jungle. In addition, this two novels use speech as a crucial and important aspect but they represent different things.

As Eric Parslow said, race is a lazy mind’s tool for identifying culture. In both novels racism is a theme that stands out. Racism is portrayed differently and is used to explain main issues found in both novels. Many critics talk about if in the novel Things Fall Apart there is racism or not. I personally think racism is not found in this novel but rather is misunderstood as Chinua Achebe is criticizing humanity and the inhuman actions done by colonizers to tribes of Africa. The Igbo culture in his novel is shown to the reader before colonization occurs. This helps the reader to have a better understanding on the effect of colonization and how it can tear cultures apart, by pieces.

By the arrival of white colonizers in town we see how Achebe wants to point the Europeans desire of ambition, conquest, violence and racism towards the African cultures. Societies are torn apart and colonizers think they have the power to erase their culture foundation and implement theirs. “The westerners tool the foundations of the indigenous people’s society and ways of living and left them with nothing. They also began “reformation of the native’s minds, by assigning the mark of the negative to everything African and the positive to everything European” (“Things”).

Achebe’s novel is in fact a write back to Conrad as the racism and cruelty he found on the novel. Achebe wants the reader to see the other perspective from the side of the natives. Therefore, he is showing things as they were and those descriptions and actions might be perceived as racist. There is a quote in the book that says: “The white man is stupid, he is fit to be a slave” (Ward). This quote is racist however you can’t say the whole novel is racist because of one quote. In order for a novel to be racist, the whole book needs to reflect this.

In contrast Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness is still being much critiqued as Africa is portrayed as a primitive place where much racism and violence is held towards the natives (“Things”). This novel portrays the other side of the story, the perspective from Marlow, a white European. By this we can see how Africa is seen as a different world where the natives are uncivilized and lack intelligence. “We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there you could look at a thing monstrous and free” (Achebe).

Conrad through the character Marlow uses words as black, monsters, uncivilized to refer to the natives. Although Conrad’s descriptions, imagery, metaphors and similes are very powerful and descriptive some are racist against the natives. The arrival of the Europeans show the power they have and how they believe they can claim for resources and the land that is not there’s. As said before, silence endures in the novella as natives have no speech symbolizing the misunderstanding of cultures. “The outcome is seen in western author’s postcolonial literature by deceptions of unknown groups of people as savages or primitive. When in reality the author has no understanding of the group of people being presented” (“Things”).

As said before natives of Africa in Conrad’s novella are portrayed as uncivilized people, being this an irony. The colonizers are not civilized because of the horrible and racist actions they perform. Due to the complexity of the space they are surrounded they lose their morals. The jungle is a character due to its power to change people. This is also the reason why the colonizers changed and became the uncivilized ones because of their ambition for power. Therefore, Conrad’s novella can be considered as racist but it is very important to remember that the story is told from the other side.

As Bob Dylan said “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” Both of these novels are important for literature in the world. Each one has different objectives and messages. Differences relies on the context and perspective they are being told. Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness deal with the big theme of colonization. What’s interesting about them is that we can see both sides of the story and by this form our criteria. I believe it is very important to see the two faces of an issue in order to understand it.

However, I consider that you can fully understand something if you have lived it. A person will always have his opinion towards something but will never truly understand it. To criticize a book, that person must have been part of the story and the context that is being told. Therefore we can’t say Heart of Darkness or Things Fall Apart is racist if we have not experienced colonization in that context. Both authors are showing readers the perspective from which is being told, so that the reader can have both sides of the story and form their criteria about the complex theme of colonization on the tribes of Africa.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'” Massachusetts Review. 18. 1977. Rpt. in Heart of Darkness, An Authoritative Text, background and Sources Criticism. 1961. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co., 1988, pp.251-261 “Comparing Things Fall Apart and Heart of Darkness.” 123HelpMe.com. 20 Oct 2012 <http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=11427>. Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness.” The Norton Anthology: English Literature. General Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 1891-1947. “Heart of Darkness Theme of Language and Communication.” Shmoop. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2012. <http://www.shmoop.com/heart-of-darkness/language-communication-theme.html>. LaRocque, Emma. “Racism and Colonization.” Aboriginal Perspectives. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. <http://www3.nfb.ca/enclasse/doclens/visau/index.php?mode=theme>.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 4 November 2016

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