Week Nine: The Heart of Darkness

Quick, grab a piece of paper and write the word “Africa” at the top.  Now write down whatever comes to mind.  Take two minutes.  I’ll wait.

Before my undergraduate students begin to discuss Heart of Darkness, I ask them to think about “Africa” and make a list of all of the things that come to mind.  A few weeks ago the board looked like it always does:

Then I ask students to look for themes.  They are quick to note that most of the items on the list are negative:  disease, poverty, war, etc.  The positives are often animal related (The Lion King comes up within the first ten items every time).  What I notice most is the list demonstrates lack, as if Africa were the lacuna of the planet.  It gives us the chance to talk about the danger of thinking of the continent of Africa as a monolith, as a country instead of a continent.  I even brought in one of Ev’s books that has a page called “African animals.” As you can guess, we don’t  use that title.  Instead we call the page “animals you might see on safari.”  I remind students that Egypt and South Africa are two different places with different problems, languages, government systems, arts, literatures, etc.  But it is so easy to think of Africa in such a way, with only one story.  From Sally Struthers to KONY, the messages about the monolithic Africa have become the only story we know of the giant land mass.  To do the work of finding out anything about this place beyond the story of lack is exhausting.  I get it.  However, as scholars and teachers, we are obligated to think of our own ideas about “Africa” and examine them.  Sometime what we see isn’t pretty.

Think about this image when you read Things Fall Apart.  The first third can be tiring, but I would argue that the didactic nature of that section is working to undo the beliefs that the English-speaking world has about Africa, and by showing very clearly that one tribe in Nigeria has its own systems in place, Achebe attempts to rewrite the story of “Africa.”  For your blog post, write a response to the terms and the novel.  How do you see those ideas working in the text?  What happened when you wrote your list?  I imagine there will be some strong material coming out of this week’s posts.

Here’s Chris Abani‘s TED talk about the stories of Africa.  I think this will give you a great place to start thinking about your own attitudes about the “dark continent” and the literatures coming out of it.



  1. Djimon Honshou’s reading of “How Not to Write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina works well in this discussion, too. Can I take your class?

    1. If you are following the blog, then you pretty much are since you have read all of the texts, my sister in po-co!

  2. […] to separate myself from my preconceived notions. I must admit that as I was reading Dr. Clemens’ blog post on Heart of Darkness, I would have fallen in line with the same trap as her students did when asked […]

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