Aspects of Racism and Dehumanization in Works of Africa


The African continent also referred to as the ‘Dark Continent’ has intrigued travelers since the dawn of seafaring civilization. These books under review – ‘Things fall apart by the Nigerian firebrand writer Chinua Achebe and ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad are of the same genre, in that they portray Africa not only in all its splendor and also in its vulnerabilities and sufferings.

Both novels deal with the dehumanization and relentless exploitation of the resources and humans in this large continent and how the natives struggled to come to terms with foreign domination and subjugation at the hands of their white masters. The comparisons, however, cease here. For one, ‘Things fall apart’ considers the psyche of a loyalist, Okonkwo, against the powers of, first the oracles, and finally the missionaries, and ultimately has to perish, perhaps setting the tone for future rebellion against foreign intrusion and wanton destruction of local culture and systems. On the other hand, ‘Heart of Darkness’ considers the timeless struggle of man’s self-deception and inner conflicts, influenced by Conrad’s sense of isolation from his past. The protagonist’s intrepid voyage into the Congo and his experiences dealing with the locals and trying to take Kurtz back home is visualized and written in an inimitable style by Conrad.


“Things fall apart” is a novel that examines the tragic events during the colonial advent into deepest Africa. Chinua Achebe’s tragic novel of pre-colonial Igbo society was a major literary and cultural event when it was published in 1958. Written during a period of nationalist declaration and a rising modern culture in Africa, the mass impact of ‘Things Fall Apart’ quickly spread from Nigeria, throughout Africa and also to several countries. “Things Fall Apart (1958), Achebe’s first novel, is remarkable for its vivid picture of Igbo society at the end of the nineteenth century “ (Njoku, 14).

‘Things fall apart is an English language novel published in the year 1958 by a Nigerian author named Chinua Achebe. This book gained popularity in English-speaking countries around the world. It can be considered as the first African novel written in English which received global critical popularity. “Having taken his title from William Butler Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming, Achebe, like Yeats, presents in vivid terms his interpretation of the cyclical view of history” (Iyasere, 27).

Main Body

Things fall apart is set at the start of the 10th century. This period was characterized by European moved quickly into Africa for commercial and evangelical reasons. This was the time when” British authorities, missions and trade penetrated the Igbo hinterland east of the Niger River” (Wren, 38).

The novel mainly relates to the life of a leader and local wrestling champion named Okonkwo and his three wives and children especially his oldest son Nwoye and his daughter Ezinma.

It is necessary not to read this novel from a ‘Eurocentric’ perspective. If seen so, it would be robbed of its artistic qualities and could be judged as “lacking plot and character,” feeble narration and “confused flashbacks” (Iyasere).

Okonkwo is very popular among his village people. He is rich, brave, and influential in his native place.

As a token of peace settlements between chieftains of two warring villages, a boy Ikemefuna is provided by the elders to the honored Okonkwo as the guardian of Ikemefuna. The boy has to stay with his local guardian, Okonkwo, till such time elders receive instructions from the oracle regarding the fate of the boy.

For three years the boy lives with Okonkwo’s family who is devoted to the boy. The boy considers Okonkwo like a father. Finally, the elders decide to sacrifice the boy to appease the gods. The oldest man in the village warns Okonkwo that he should not concur with such a sacrifice, but the chief does not pay heed to the old man’s warnings. After the boy’s killing, Okonkwo’s life changes dramatically for the worse. During the funeral rituals, Okonkwo unwittingly commits a murder and is exiled for seven years. When he is away in exile from his native village, expatriate white people take over the local government and introduce their religion. After returning from exile, Okonkwo is appalled at the changes in his village. They destroy a local Christian church but they are arrested.

Finally, Okonkwo realizes the fact that the Igbo tribe is doomed. When local leaders of the new white administration reach Okonkwo’s house to send him for trial, they find he has committed suicide. By killing himself, he has asserted his superiority over his rivals and conquerors, in that he would not submit to their overlordship. In a sense he had just “preceded” members of his tribe in total annihilation. (Begam).

Once again, he has proved his leadership qualities, in leading his tribe from the front.

This novel is based on the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on the traditional Igbo community and how this leads to the destruction of the Igbo community.

It concerns itself with the life of the protagonist, Okonkwo, a tribal leader, whose faith in oracles is so strong that he is willing to kill his adopted son in order to propitiate ‘chukwu’ (God) and to escape the wrath of ‘chukwu’ or ’chi’. This supernatural element exerts a powerful influence over the lives of Africans. “No matter how many divinities sit together to put a man’s ruins, it will come to nothing unless his chi is here among them. chi has unprecedented veto powers over a man’s destiny” (Achebe).

However, accidentally he also kills another person during the funeral for which he is banished for seven years. Upon his return, he finds that everything in the village has changed. The village has been colonized by white men and they have set up missionaries and churches to propagate their faith and convert people into their professed religion. He is up in arms against them to save his country and culture and against foreign invasion. However, in the process he destroys the Christian church and kills one of the messengers of the missionaries, who wished to seek peace with him. He now becomes a fugitive and would rather prefer to kill himself by hanging rather than face incarceration in their jail.

This vividly portrayed novel delineates the influence of colonialism in a traditionally bound Nigerian village at that juncture of history. Its protagonist, Obi Okonkwo, exemplifies both the nobility and inflexibility of the ancient norms of Africa.

“He is not opposed to change emanating from the light of his people’s imagination and grafted in his indigenous cultures, but to transformation away from total condemnation of whatever is traditional and conventional” (Njoku, 22).

Again the white men, in their ignorance of African culture and religion, brand it as “barbaric, pagan and evil” (Ogbaa, 12).

Deep below, this novel, ‘Things fall apart’ examines the racialist overtures that have come to pervade Africa through the advent of Europeans into the Dark Continent.

Although it is a simple story told with apparent straightforwardness and elegance, its protagonist is not only a conflict with white colonists, but also with himself- whether he should preserve the rich African culture, or allow it to integrate with Christianity.

“As the most divisive element of Igbo life, because its tenets are at odds with those of traditional Igbo religion. Out of ignorance of Igbo culture and civilization, Christian missionaries branded most Igbo customs as heathenish,” (Ogbaa, 127).

It also examines the writer’s obsession for human feelings and pathos, especially in matters dealing with African rituals and customs, and acceptance of the suzerainty of the white masters who wish to propagate Christian faith among the natives.

While their primary aim was to amass the natural wealth that this continent possessed, and spread their religion, these, tragically, are being done through the subjugation and exploitation of the poor natives, who fall prey to their machinations and succumb to the evil effects of colonization.

The theme of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad follows similar lines, especially its racial overtures. In the novella, ‘The Heart of Darkness’, racism is being presented with such vividness and explicitness that, for once, the reader is necessitated to overcome the racial aspects, before settling down to read and understand the storyline. Conrad has sprinkled a liberal dose of ‘derogatory, outdated and offensive terminology,’ so much so, that the reader would not be wrong in terming him a racist, at least since this book is concerned. In many instances in the book, he has fundamentally undermined the very essence of humanity and peaceful co-existence, and has chosen to term the African natives as ‘savages’, ‘niggers’ and ‘cannibals’. This use of Conrad’s language is a major portion of the book that acutely disturbs or even haunts the readers, and does little to exalt the unbiased view of the writer in the reader’s perspective. (The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad).

While the fundamental objective is to make the natives hunt ivory for their white masters, the implication is to rule the African land and people.

It is believed that the author Chinua Achebe had termed Conrad as a racist and that his book ‘Heart of Darkness’ had explicit racial connotations. “As Achebe asserts, a psychological (or indeed, metaphysical) reading that focuses only on Kurtz or Marlow and ignores the social and historical context replicates the dehumanization of Africans that Heart of Darkness’s critique of imperialism deplores.

“In “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s heart of darkness” Chinua Achebe explicitly examines, as his title makes clear, the image of (black, sub-Saharan) Africa that Conrad depicts in his novel” (Firchow, 23).

Achebe also argues that African culture and history have been denied adequate representation in European writing, and that Heart of Darkness does nothing to remedy this” (Conrad, XXXI).

But one aspect that Achebe misses is that this novel was set during the end of the 19th century (circa 1899) during which time, possibly Africa did not even exist in maps. It was truly a dark continent and the terms niggers were just a common expression and nothing beyond it. It is presumptuous on the part of Achebe to attribute modern connotations to 19th-century historical occurrences.

That being said, coming back to ‘Things fall apart ’, it only seeks to reinforce Achebe’s self-condemnation through his characters, especially the protagonist Okonkuo, who rises to the height of glory and is then condemned to execute himself for his actions. At one plane, Achebe seeks to offer moral retribution for the injustice inflicted on the African people and at another, the protagonist seeks to destroy him and the value systems for which he stood for. Perhaps, the author wishes to glorify him, or eventually, make him a martyr for the cause of his people. In ‘Heart of Darkness’, however, Conrad seeks to depict the inner struggles and turmoil, not so much between the characters, but in the inner struggles of their souls. “With characters as anti-hero, he examines man’s moral complexities and capacity for corruption and evil, and the dark depth of the human psyche” (Joseph Conrad, para.3).

On the other hand, the essence of ‘Things falls apart’ takes cognizance of how one brave individual, while trying to protect his own cultural values and moorings also wages war against anything that is antithesis of it.

The Nigerian writer, Achebe’s novel set in deep Africa was a classic revelation when this book was first released in year1958. It speaks of the dissipation of rich and valued African cultures and customs with the advent of white colonization, and could rightly be termed as a paradigm of contemporary African work. Joseph Conrad’s celebrated novel ‘The Heart of Darkness’ too is considered a masterpiece of twentieth-century writing wherein the great storyteller deftly “explores the workings of consciousness as well as the grim realities of imperialism.” (Conrad, Back cover).

However, the story ‘The Heart of Darkness’ progresses at three levels.

At one level, the physical one, the novella takes the reader on a voyage into the middle of the Belgian Congo. But on a more significant metaphysical level, the yearnings of the anguished soul of Marlow are unraveled before the reader, which reaches its crescendo upon his meeting and interaction with Kurtz, the ivory trader whom he has to rescue and take back to his home country.

At the third and most crucial level, the story also deals with European imperialism, subjugation and explicit cruelty meted out to the poor and underprivileged African people. On the pretext of ivory business, Kurtz and his men unleash a war of terror and oppression on natives and exploit them ruthlessly for making profits from the ivory trade.

“While ‘Heart of Darkness is critical of colonization, and presents the Africans as the innocent victims of European greed and will-to-power, the imagery of darkness it uses as metaphysical discourse associates ‘evil’ with the categories used in the anthropological description of ‘primitive’ peoples.” (Conrad, XXXIV).


Robert M. Wren sedulously takes cognizance of the fact that appeasement and prehistoric deeds are utilized by the author with great satire at the end of the book.

This could also be interpreted as indicative of the fact that aspects of dehumanizing and not trying to understand the African way of life have led to a plethora of conflicts between the natives and the European settlers. If the settlers had taken more pains to understand the local culture and the rich African traditional moorings, and respected the people of Africa, poor yet proud, meek yet strong, it would have been quite possible for African history to have been rewritten on a more positive and peaceful note.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Chi in Igbo Cosmology.

Begam, Richard. Achebe’s sense of an ending: History and Tragedy in ‘Things fall apart. Studies in the Novel 29. 3 (1997): 396+.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness With, the Congo Diary: Back Cover. Ed. Robert Hampson. England: Penguin Books. 2000.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness With, the Congo Diary: Introduction. Ed. Robert Hampson. Penguin Classics. 1995.

Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. University Press of Kentucky. 2000.

Iyasere, Solomon O., ed. Understanding Things Fall Apart: Selected Essays and Criticism. Troy, NY: Whitston Publishing. 1998.

Joseph Conrad. The Literature Network. 2009. Web.

Njoku, Benedict Chiaka. The Four Novels of Chinua Achebe: A Critical Study: Chapter One. New York: Peter Lang. 1984.

Ogbaa, Kalu. Understanding Things Far Apart: A Student’s Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. London: Greenwood Press. 1999.

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Essortment: Information and Advice You Want to Know. 2002. Web.

Wren, Robert M. Things Fall Apart In Time and Space. 38.

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