Image borrowed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:In_Darkest_Africa_forest_clearing.jpg
Because I’m black and I’m a woman and because I was brought up poor and because I’m a Southerner … the way I see the world is quite different from the way many people see it.
The whole point of reading literature, it seems to me, is to learn to have sympathies, imaginative relationships with people who are different from one’s self.
Although they were written almost a century apart, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” reflect on the stereotypes and prejudices of black people of their time. Readers who are highly sensitive to the negative portrayals of Africans might find the former the work of a racist white man, and the latter the work of an African-American woman who is an equal rights activist, representing justice and benevolence. Though the scholar Chinua Achebe might take offense to such a characterization, Conrad, in a way, is an activist, too. For a white man who lived in the late nineteenth century, whose world was dominated by an imperial view and attitude, he was ahead of his time, in showing the moral conscience to expose hypocrisy, greed and brutality of Europeans through Heart of Darkness. Both stories are plagued with stereotypes and racial issues.
In Heart of Darkness, one of Conrad’s main characters, Charles Marlow, has an exciting opportunity to make a living in an unnamed place in Africa. His fascination with maps and his childhood dream of exploring uncharted territory in Africa (which mirror the author) bring about this excitement. Before his arrival, his mind has already been fraught with prejudices and stereotypes of the country and people, expressed in terms such as “darkness,” “wilderness” and “savages.” He believes he is there to “civilize” the “savages.” He sees himself as “one of the Workers, with a capital—you know. Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle” (Conrad 27). He is proud to see the amount of red, the color of England, on “a large shining map” at the Company’s offices. It means “some real work is done in there”(24). To his disappointment, he is sent to the place marked in yellow instead.
Upon his arrival, Africans appear to him “black and naked” and he perceives the “deadlike indifference of unhappy savages” (Conrad 29, 30). He would be unhappy too if he were chained like an animal by foreigners who invaded his country, exploited his land, and enslaved him. But later, in reference to Africans abandoning their villages, he acknowledges, “Well, if a lot of mysterious n—-s armed with all kinds of fearful weapons suddenly took to traveling on the road between Deal and Gravesend, catching the yokels right and left to carry heavy loads for them, I fancy every farm and cottage thereabouts would get empty very soon” (34). Any reader with a conscience would further ponder how they would feel if the shoe were on the other foot, in this business of empire.
In the Outer Station, Marlow begins to notice the inefficiency and the greedy materialism of the colonists. Africans are chained together and perform useless tasks from which they drop from exhaustion. They are left to die in pain, abandonment, and despair (Conrad 31). He sees a native savagely beaten nearly to death for purportedly starting a conflagration. As if teaching a lesson to a dog, without communicating to this native about guarding against future accidents, the aggressor justifies his barbaric beating of the poor man. The victim moans, hauntingly, in pain before he recovers, after many days, and takes to the depths of the forest.
Marlow sees dead bodies of the natives wherever he goes. He hears about “a middle-aged negro” with a bullet-hole in his head (Conrad 35). Dead bodies, in skins and bones, amass on the earth like animals that have been claimed by famine and drought. Instead of dying from natural disaster, they died from the savagery of the men who came to “enlighten” them. Meanwhile, the Company’s chief accountant walks around in immaculately pressed clothes, completely oblivious or thoughtless of his surroundings.
Although Marlow sees and thinks about these things, real enlightenment has not yet come to him. He still views Africa and Africans as impenetrable, primitive and dangerous. “We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet” (Conrad 50). These stereotypical fantasies are repeated throughout the novella. Another example is the narrator’s description of going up the river, which is akin to “traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”
An empty stream, a great silence, and impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect. (49)
Like men of his time and place, Marlow is devoid of the humanity of Africans—that is, their individualities, their feelings, their emotions, their spirits, their customs, their histories, and languages. Their language to him is just a “grunt” and “noise.” As for the people, they remain nameless, faceless, voiceless, and miserable. He views them, just like the country, as shadow and darkness, as if they were creatures from another world. “The earth seemed unearthly. 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.” Besides calling them creatures, monsters, and savages, much of the time he refers to them by the n-word.
He regards white men as superior, even god-like, in the words of Kurtz, and thus they should not be spoken to, let alone in an unmannerly way. “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might as of a deity,’ and so on, and so on. ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded,’ etc. etc.” (Conrad 65). One must wonder what kind of deity would invade and enslave others, and to force the natives by fraud into submission of their conquest? With such an attitude of superior arrogance, Marlow is taken aback by the general manager for allowing “his boy,” a young African who appears to him to be overfed, to “treat the white men, under his very eyes, with provoking insolence” (37). Yet, it is okay for white men to treat Africans with contempt, hatred, and violence.
At the Central Station, Marlow meets a nephew and uncle who plot to squeeze out all the wealth in Africa and want to delay the trip to the Inner Station to pick up Kurtz—the hollow-to-the-core man who is revered and feared by both Africans and Europeans. They want to leave him to die, since he is already gravely ill. They want the ivory for themselves, because they see him as competition. After all, Kurtz high-handedly controls the natives and dominates the ivory trade surrounding his station. On the way to find Kurtz, they enlist some of the twenty cannibals for a crew. Marlow admires them for their work and their restraint from hunger by not eating the pilgrims, for throwing their hippo meat into the river. He sees these white men as flabby and scared, while the cannibals—broad-chested and strong—can easily overpower them. This is one of the few instances where Marlow thinks somewhat highly of the natives.
Marlow also becomes sentimentally attached to the helmsman, but he only sees this after the man is hit by a spear and dies when the steamboat is under attack by one of the African tribes, which ordered by Kurtz, who, in one of his mad moments, does not want to leave his compound. Now that Marlow has to steer the boat all by himself, he misses the poor chap. Still he manages to blame and denigrate him for having no restraint by opening the shutter. “The fool-n—– had dropped everything, to throw the shutter open and let off that Martini-Henry” (Conrad 61).
Another person he is somewhat in awe of is the mistress of Kurtz. He bestows great details upon her, which sets her apart from other Africans he sees. “She was savage and superb, wild-eyed and magnificent; there was something ominous and stately in her deliberate progress” (Conrad 76). His lavish praises say, in effect, “For a savage, she is gorgeous.” Contrary to Kurtz’s fiancé, the Intended, she does not have a voice. This does not sit well with Chinua Achebe because 1) she is in her place and 2) she fulfills a structural requirement of the story: a savage counterpart to the refined, European woman with whom the story will end. According to Achebe, “It is clearly not part of Conrad’s purpose to confer language on the ‘rudimentary souls’ of Africa. They only ‘exchange short grunting phrases’ even among themselves, but mostly they were too busy with their frenzy” (6).
By the third part of the novella, though Marlow is in awe and admires Kurtz, he sees the man has succumbed to darkness. Kurtz’s life is plagued with violence and greed. He has abandoned his civilization, “gone native,” butchered those who oppose him, and profited from the ivory business for himself, not the company he works for. He has become the true colonizer or the true tyrant of Africa—his part of Africa, anyway. Marlow calls him hollow—hollow to the core. He believes that since Kurtz has been away from the eyes of civil society and authority, especially for so long, he can do whatever he wants and no one can stop him. Besides, no one in the civilized world knows about his violent and corrupt ways. Marlow gives the “between the butcher and the policeman” speech to his listeners:
You can’t understand. How could you?—with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbors ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums—how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages a man’s untrammeled feet may take him into by the way of solitude—utter solitude without a policeman—by the way of silence—utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the great difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your own innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness. Of course you may be too much of a fool to go wrong—too dull even to know you are being assaulted by the powers of darkness. I take it, no fool ever made a bargain for his soul with the devil: the fool is too much of a fool, or the devil too much of a devil—I don’t know which. Or you may be such a thundering exalted creature as to be altogether deaf and blind to anything but heavenly sights and sounds. Then the earth for you is only a standing place—and whether to be like this is your loss or your gain I won’t pretend to say. But most of us are neither one nor the other. The earth for us is a place to live in, where we must put up with sights, with sounds, with smells, too, by Jove!—breathe dead hippo, so to speak, and not be contaminated. (Conrad 65)
This denouement, that “Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz,” infuriates Achebe (9). He eloquently attributes this kind of rationale to “the desire—one might indeed say the need—in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (2). However, this is not the message that Marlow or his string-puller, Conrad, wants to convey. Regardless of the location of the setting, the message remains the same—that men, without law and order and judgment of others, will let go of their restraint or inhibition to act on their urges, desires, lusts, greed, and primal instincts. And knowing that no one is there to stop them or that they will not suffer the consequences of their actions, they run wild and free. They will continue to rape, plunge, and destroy others and the world in which they live.
At the opening of the story, as he and four other men sit in the yawl called the Nellie, waiting for the tide to turn, Marlow points out the Thames as a place where 1900 years earlier the Romans had similarly stared into its darkness. He says it “has been one of the dark places of the earth” (Conrad 19). He realizes that “the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much” (Conrad 21). In essence, he is saying that empire building is an ugly business. And at the ending of the story, the first narrator adopts Marlow’s word and braces himself as they head out to wherever they are going, perhaps the unknown. “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” (94).
Marlow, as an enlightened person, reveals that Europeans have a heart of darkness. After all, “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz” (Conrad 65). The stereotypes, prejudices, dehumanization, denigration, and violence against Africans are manifestations of people with dark hearts. Heart of Darkness remains one of the greatest or “genius” works of art for this moral lesson. If literature or arts were to have a moral lesson, this is it, contrary to Achebe’s outrage. In An Image of Africa, he writes, “I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question. It seems to me totally inconceivable that great art or even good art could possibly reside in such unwholesome surroundings” (11). Yet this is the mindset of Europe back then; otherwise, Heart of Darkness would not exist. It shows that Conrad is ahead of his time.
Sadly, stereotypes and prejudices of black people continue, in life and in literature. Almost a century later, after Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” authors like Alice Walker continue to reflect on these issues, especially the portrayal of women. In “Everyday Use,” an oral story like Heart of Darkness, Walker confronts the stereotypes of black Southern women in the time of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
In the wake of these movements, educated young African-Americans try to separate themselves from the “mammy” type of representation and even degrade or ridicule those older Africans who fit such a description. Alice Walker takes notice. Further inflamed by the negative portrayal in historical representations of slave mammies whose existence is seen as “only to enhance her white folks’ lives,” as in the case of William Faulkner’s character of Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury, and black women who are voiceless, as portrayed by black men writers such as Jean Toomer, Walker has to illustrate her own idea of black women and heroines and elaborate on their positive qualities (Walker and Christian 9).
In “Everyday Use,” not only does Mama have a voice—an eloquent and expressive voice—but she is also a well-rounded character. While she still fits the stereotypes of the historical slave mammy who is a “larger, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” and wears “flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day,” she has no shame in these things, because, in her own right, she is a strong and independent woman who “can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man.” Her “fat keeps [her] hot in zero weather.” She can “work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing … can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog.” She “knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall” (Guerin 406). She is aware she is uneducated—that society or her daughter would prefer her to be “a hundred pounds lighter, skin like “uncooked barley pancake,” and with hair that “glistens in the hot bright lights,” but this is her, take it or leave it. She makes no apologies. She is an individual with feelings, values, emotions, and spirituality, and she works hard to attend to her children and her everyday living. She finds the means, through the help of her church, to provide an education, which she did not have, for her older daughter. She actively participates in her community. Moreover, she represents the “creator” and the “guardian” of the culture, and her legacy will live on (Walker and Christian 14).
Similar to Mama, Maggie represents the uneducated and “backward” woman who is left behind while the lucky ones go off to better themselves and advance in life. In contrast to Dee, she is mentally slow, dark, and has burn scars down her arms and legs.
It is ironic in light of the critique of Conrad as racist, that Walker, through the character of Mama, compares the way Maggie walks to a “lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him” (Guerin 406). She does not say much, and when she sees her sister and her male companion, she lets out an “Uhnnnh” sound. Mama describes the sound like “when you see the wriggle end of a snake just in front of our foot on the road. ‘Uhnnnh’ ” (Guerin 408). Achebe crucifies Conrad for depicting Africans’ speech and movements as wild-like. But because Walker is an African-American woman, such comparison or analogy probably would not offend him. In spite of scars and physical and mental inferiority to her sister, Maggie understands something that her brighter sister does not understand, the real value and honor of her heritage in the creation and appreciation of quilts, which she puts into everyday use. She gets her gratification from knowing that her mother and matrilineal ancestors will live within her, her children, and grandchildren.
Walker bestows, through the narrative of Mama, social awareness, education, and middle-class status to Dee/Wangero. The older daughter also possesses beauty and fine taste in material things: clothes, arts and other luxury. “Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure,” says her mother. “Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style” (Guerin 407). Just like Maggie, Mama admires and is in awe of her older daughter—the way she speaks her mind, the way she dresses, and the way she carries herself.
Dee represents the new generation of black people, educated and successful. Education gives her courage, a new outlook on life, and a sense of liberation. Recognizing their individual rights, she and others of like mind unite under the banner of nationalism in the roots of Africa, to combat the stereotypes and prejudices against African-Americans by white or Euro-Americans. She abandons her given name, Dee, which she feels represents oppression by white men. Instead, she opts for Wangero, an African name, to affirm her identity. Her knowledge of Africa, Africans and their culture are as limited as that of Marlow and other white people in “Heart of Darkness.” Unfortunately, it turns out that she is shallow and does not see the real connection between herself and her ancestry. She only appreciates art, in this case her family’s quilts, in aesthetic ways. She does not have the same connection that Maggie has with their ancestors, because she does not know how to make quilts.
In response to the stereotypes and the prejudices of the older, poor, and uneducated black women, Walker gives them a voice and assigns a positive attribute to them. Barbara Christian affirms that Walker reacts to these stereotypes and prejudices when she shapes her characters. This kind of focus might limit the development of the characters. E. Shelley Reid writes, “Knowing, as one of Morrison’s characters explains, that ‘definitions belonged to the definers’ (Beloved 190), a generation of writers focused intently on helping their black women characters learn to define themselves positively instead of just reacting against others’ stereotypes, and gave them the power to speak their own names and stories” (Reid 315).
Black women have a strong presence and voice in Walker’s writing. However, the presence and the voice of black men are missing. In her attempt to cast the women in positive light, she excludes black men or reduces them to just shadowy images.
Regardless of race, human beings and writers are still evolving. From “Heart of Darkness” to “Everyday Use,” stereotypes and prejudices remain societal problems. But, in the words of Irving Howe, “the whole point of reading literature, it seems to me, is to learn to have sympathies, imaginative relationships with people who are different from one’s self” (Bloom 155). How one interprets such a depiction of different peoples is another story. The case in point is Chinua Achebe’s interpretation and many other interpretations of Heart of Darkness. The problem is, Achebe treats the novella as if it were written in today’s society, ignoring the fact that Europeans back then did not have the same mind-set as today. The stereotypes, prejudices, and racisms expressed in Heart of Darkness are based on ignorance, and on a colonial or imperial view. “Conrad could probably never have used Marlow to present anything other than an imperialist world-view, given what was available for either Conrad or Marlow to see of the non-European at the time” (Said 375). Conrad and Walker, though they represent a different race, gender, and time, they are morally conscience artists who care about what happen in their societies. Their works address the same issues and they will continue to inspire readers.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa. Research in African Literatures.” Vol. 9, No. 1, Special Issue on Literary Criticism. (Spring, 1978), pp. 1-15. Indiana University Press. .
Bloom, Harold. Alice Walker. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2007. Print.
Guerin, Wilfred L. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
Reid, E. Shelley. “Beyond Morrison And Walker.” African American Review 34.2 (2000): 313. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.
Rice, Philip, and Patricia Waugh. Modern literary theory: a reader. London [u.a.: Arnold, 2001.
Walker, Alice, and Barbara Christian. Everyday use. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1994.