It’s no secret that the literary canon consists of primarily-white authors. And while there’s no question that these works hold literary value, there is a larger discussion that needs to be had: many of these classics are problematic in some way. I don’t believe in censorship, and in no way suggest we completely remove these books from library shelves. But if we’re going to continue studying these titles, we need to acknowledge that they’re problematic and incorporate that into classroom learning. Even further than that, we need to expand the literary canon to include more people of color.
Today we’re going to do a little bit of literary analysis—and look at the problematic tendencies of three well-loved classics.
1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Probably Conrad’s most famous novel, Heart of Darkness is a story within a story that follows Charlie Marlow as he recounts his time as a ferry boat captain travelling into Africa. There, he meets a man named Kurtz who has become a god in the eyes of the natives.
There’s no question that Conrad is a talented writer. His style was the only thing I enjoyed about this book. And while it explores an important theme—the corruption of European colonialism—Conrad perpetuates the stereotype that native Africans were savage. When I studied this book in my English class, my teacher “let us decide” whether or not the book was racist. She explained that while some people have criticized the book, others defended Conrad, believing that his racist depictions of African natives were intentional.
Regardless of Conrad’s own beliefs or intentions, the book’s portrayal of African natives is still racist, especially since Conrad does nothing to suggest that Marlow’s views are just that—problematic. And while I get that the book was written in a different time, that doesn’t mean we should just ignore the implications of Conrad’s descriptions of natives.
The Africans aren’t viewed as human; the natives are portrayed as savage and cannibalistic, even as the narrator sympathizes with them as he sees the way the men in the Company justify their maltreatment of Africans in hopes of “civilizing them.” In addition, Kurtz openly uses violence against the natives to keep them in line. By the end, Heart of Darkness certainly condemns imperialization and the abuse of the African natives, though it maintains this idea that they are nothing more than objects, as opposed to actual people.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe also explores imperialism, but without the racist depictions seen in Heart of Darkness.
Where Conrad explores the effects of imperialism from the lens of a white man, Achebe’s book is from the perspective of Okonkwo, a Nigerian man. But instead of portraying Okonkwo and his clan as “savage,” Achebe illustrates the peoples’ culture and customs. The book doesn’t shy away from things like the clan drinking human blood, or Okonkwo having three wives—things that, in Conrad’s eyes, would make them “uncivilized.” Instead, Achebe shows that they are human and have customs of their own. The clan might be fictional, but its customs are grounded in reality, mirroring Achebe’s birthplace of Ogidi.
If we’re going to study Heart of Darkness, we should be studying Things Fall Apart, too (if not in place of). Conrad’s portrayal of Africans is shallow and unrealistic, whereas Achebe’s exploration of colonialism and its effects on Nigerian natives in the book is grounded in reality. As students, it’s important we not only acknowledge the effects of imperialism, but read about how it affected natives—from the people who actually experienced it, like Achebe.
2. Bug-Jargal by Victor Hugo
Victor Hugo is another undeniably talented writer, though he perpetrates racist stereotypes about African natives all the same, specifically using the “royal savage” trope in his book, Bug-Jargal.
In a depiction of the Haitain Revolution, the book follows a slave revolt in Haiti. At the center of it is the mysterious “Bug-Jargal,” one of the rebel leaders who the narrator initially hates but eventually grows to love when Bug-Jargal saves his life.
Despite the narrator’s unlikely bond with the rebel leader, the book portrays the rest of the slaves as violent and savage as they revolt. This is most clearly seen with the character Habibrah, who turns on his slavemasters, killing the narrator’s father and attempting to kill the narrator himself. Habibrah is angry at the way he’s been treated and seeks revenge. Yet the book villainizes him as the narrator, D’Auverney, plays the victim and can’t seem to understand Habibrah’s anger.
The royal savage trope is harmful here because it only humanizes Bug-Jargal—the character who tries to help our narrator instead of revolt against him. The slaves killing their slave masters are violent, yes, but only because they’ve been horribly mistreated. The book simply paints them as animalistic savages without looking at the reason behind their actions.
Bug-Jargal also looks at the anxiety of “mixedness” throughout the book. It often describes slaves using a scientifically absurd method of identifying “how black” a character is—one fourth, one eighth, etc. It is in no way based in fact, and only exposes whites’ fear of mixed children.
Victor Hugo might be a talented writer, but he wrote this book without ever travelling to Haiti. He greatly misrepresents the revolting slaves, playing into stereotypes that are ultimately problematic.
3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
This book was beloved by many when it was first published in 1852. As an anti-slavery novel, it was progressive for its time—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to recognize the impact this book had at the time it was written. Many claim this book “laid the groundwork for the Civil War”; when Lincoln met Harriet, he supposedly said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” But while we study the book, we should also acknowledge the stereotypes it helped create.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin follows a slave that must go on the run after her owner sells her son to another master. At the heart of the novel is the sentiment that with the love of God in their hearts, the slaves of the novel can overcome their hardship.
As stated on Amazon, “The book and the plays it inspired helped popularize a number of stereotypes about black people. These include the affectionate, dark-skinned “mammy”; the “pickaninny” stereotype of black children; and the ‘Uncle Tom’, or dutiful, long-suffering servant faithful to his white master or mistress.” Overall, the book reinforces the “kind slaveowner” ideal, suggesting that the slaves are part of the family that ultimately owns them.
The lesser-known Blake; or the Huts of America by Martin Delany takes a story similar to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but gives its black protagonists the agency to revolt. While not as well-written, the book is riddled with literary meaning and symbols that any English student will enjoy analyzing. While I think it’s important to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work and understand its historical significance, I also think students should be reading it in conjunction with a work like Blake, written by an African-American author and capable of showing Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s shortcomings.
As important as these works are to the literary canon, it’s important that, as English students, we look at the ways they may be problematic and perpetuate stereotypes. The whole point of studying literature is to analyze it from different lenses. In the English classroom, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to point out the racist depictions of slaves and natives in these books. More than anything, we should also be studying more works by authors of color, especially in conjunction with these books.