Decolonising the Single Story: Chinua Achebe’s ‘An Image of Africa’

By Laura da Silva

In ‘An Image of Africa’, Chinua Achebe breaks down the prejudice and racism displayed in the novel ‘Heart of Darkness’. He critiques the damaging use of racist imagery in the novel in its portrayal of Africa and the African people, as well as how this has affected the West’s perception and glorification of colonisation.

‘Heart of Darkness’, written in 1988 by Joseph Conrad, tells the story of Captain Marlow’s voyage through the Congo during the peak of European Colonialism. Through his lead character, Conrad paints a desperate picture of the ”savages” that populate the “dark and uncivilised” continent of Africa. Chinua Achebe problematizes Conrad’s prejudiced narrative throughout his work, deconstructing the offensive images of Africa and drawing attention to Conrad’s fixation on the unruly “blackness” of the continent and her people. Specifically, ‘An Image of Africa’ interrogates the blatant dehumanization of African people in Conrad’s novel, through the use of imagery and the demeaning narrative which portrays African people as cannibals. Moreover, Achebe points out that the African people are not given language, but are characterised by grunts and uncivilised physical actions. In fact, the only times they are given language is when they are depicted as cannibals. Given how obvious this dehumanisation and racism is in ‘Heart of Darkness’, Achebe finds himself surprised that in all the years since its publication no scholar has admitted to or dealt with the blatant racism displayed by Conrad.

Achebe’s critique extends to how we judge and value literature as a modern society. Does the mastery of style and language excuse an author from peddling racist and damaging narratives? The vast use of Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ in school syllabi around the world would suggest this, a hard truth which Achebe points out. “Just because the novel had been accepted into the ‘canon’, and now falls into the class of ‘permanent literature’”, Achebe says, “does not mean we should not question it closely – or criticize its author.” 

For it is true that the value of literature is not the mere construction of diction, but rather the ideas, perspectives and stories it tells about society. These stories shape the perspectives and biases of their readers. They mold readers’ world view and model their impression of history, hence we ought to be more critical with the viewpoints we allow to be celebrated.

Herein lies the danger of ‘the single story’. This is when one perspective is told on behalf of another group as the only narrative. This narrative is usually that of those powerful enough to be dictating history, rather than those to whom the stories belong. Renowned Nigerian author Chiamanda Adichie captures this sentiment well: “Telling other people’s story and defining it as the single story robs them of the chance to claim their own identity and narrative. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

And this is exactly the case in ‘Heart of Darkness’. Conrad has created a single narrative of a dark, primitive and savage Africa, the very antithesis of her ‘great’ coloniser England. Achebe’s essay takes hold of this narrative and shines a light on how we, as a society, have blindly adopted a racist and narrow-minded single story of colonised Africa. Through his clearly structured arguments he exposes the derogatory imagery present in Conrad’s novel and the harmful effect this has on a reader’s perspective of Africa and her people.

The West often vastly underestimates the damage that these racist works of literature have had on how African voices are valued in the global dialogue. The praise given to racist works like ‘Heart of Darkness’ excuse the slander of a group of people and teach African children that their perspective and self-esteem is unimportant. I believe that works like Achebe’s are important in order to reclaim the narrative and redirect the story-telling to those to whom the stories belong. It is important that in decolonising literature we correct, highlight and remove the prejudice that has been peddled against Africa, and the colonised world, as well as promoting and including diverse perspectives and narratives so that they too may influence our way of thinking. 

It is crucial to realise that in the process to decolonise literature and advocate for a more diverse and authentic representation of the varied global perspective, there is no need to ‘give a voice’ to those disenfranchised. This message is patronizing and feeds into the narrative that Africa is somehow less-intelligent and needs the west to help them ‘find their voice’, admittedly a colonialist way of thinking. Africa has a well-developed and important point of view, we need only listen. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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