During his grand welcome at Brown earlier this month, an audience member questioned Nigerian writer and new faculty member Chinua Achebe about his criticism of Joseph Conrad and his novel, Heart of Darkness, as being racist and anti-African. Achebe neither defended his view nor backed away from it. Here is how The Brown Daily Herald recorded the exchange:
Once Achebe began taking questions, an audience member referenced his controversial critique of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” — in which he accused Conrad of being “a bloody racist” — and asked if the book inspired Achebe’s work. Achebe responded, “Inspired? I read the book and that was it.” … But Achebe added, “If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. Don’t throw away any book ever. Read it.”
Well, to his credit, he didn’t tell students not to read Heart of Darkness. But he is telling them to judge whether a novel is a great work of art based on how it portrays a particular race or ethnicity. And that is still a big problem. Were this standard applied across the board to Western literature pre-Civil Rights, many literary giants would be felled.
The above article, by the way, marks the thirteenth article this semester that The Herald has published on Achebe. All have been overwhelmingly postive, save one: our letter to the editor calling him out on his remarks on Conrad. While the Achebe appointment certainly merits coverage, a dozen celebratory articles on this news is more than excessive.
Of course, it’s not his literary talents or merits as a scholar that are earning all this coverage, it’s the fact that Achebe has become the latest emblem of Brown’s commitment to racial and cultural diversity. Can anyone imagine 12 articles on someone like the esteemed historian Gordon Wood, whose recent retirement certainly was big news on campus. (For the record, we found two articles on Wood in the past two years, available here and here.)