Africa: a Foil for European Superiority

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Africa: A Foil for Civilized Superiority

        Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a novel that is widely considered a classic; it is highly acclaimed, and taught in most high schools. Yet many people, including Chinua Achebe, a well regarded African writer, believe that Heart of Darkness should not even be considered a piece of art, let alone a classic; the reason being that Heart of Darkness  exudes racism. However, this is not the true issue, for two reasons: first, racism was extremely prevalent, as well as acceptable, at the time, making racist elements, while still not tolerable, understandable. Second, this book unwittingly exemplifies a much larger issue, which is still present today: the need of the “civilized” to be superior in every way to other people whom they consider too be more savage.

        Although people largely do not differentiate between the need to be superior and racism, with racism often seen as the result of this need, a large difference does, in fact, exist. While they are very similar, the need to be superior is broader, and something inherent to humanity, while racism is more specific, focused, and something that is learned. In other words, nobody wakes up one day as a racist, but people are always striving to be the best they can possibly be; and for the most part, there is nothing wrong with that: being the best is generally considered a good thing, as it should be. However, in this particular instance, there is nothing more revolting or unjust than the way in which people make themselves “the best.” It is “The thought of their humanity—like yours… [But] Ugly” (Heart of Darkness 108-109). Here, rather than being the best through ability, the “civilized” assert their superiority in their minds, not through actually being the best, but simply by seeing themselves as superior to the African in every way; seeing African society as an “Ugly” (Heart of Darkness 109) and distorted version of their own. This is where the superiority complex can be mistaken for racism, but a difference still remains, as this view of Africa is not based off of skin color, which isn’t of the slightest concern, as they could be any color, including white, and the result would be the same. Rather, it is the clear difference in the social structure that allows people to easily differentiate between Africa and the “civilized” world, which in turn allows people to believe that their way of life is better. This sense of superiority springs not from racism, which is often just an excuse to mistreat or take advantage of another race, but from the human need to be the best, with Africa providing the perfect backdrop for comparison. Unfortunately, this has caused Africa to suffer.

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        In Chinua Achebe’s essay, “An Image of Africa,” Achebe’s main focus is to point out the racism, in Heart of Darkness, and argue against its merit as a classic. However, this is not his only focus, and in the beginning, Achebe makes a small point which far exceeds the importance of his main argument, the point being that the west, along with Europe, needs to see Africa 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” (An Image of Africa 2). People need to see ...

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