In what ways do African writers explore the theme of race

The theme of race is displayed in most African literature, as an inherent consequence of colonialism that had previously, or continues to be active in Africa. Europe’s ‘scramble for Africa’ created the foundation for great divisions to occur in single countries and multiple countries in Africa alike, it divided tribe from tribe and created the need for a recognised political independence – the after effects of which are characterised by the Biafran struggle for independence in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.

In a similar fashion, Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ exposes the barbaric truth of colonisation as a vehicle for corruption and debauchery under the pretence of ‘civilising’ the Congolese natives. In Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ Nigeria had just become independent of the United Kingdom, and already, tensions are brewing between the Hausa and Igbo people.

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Their divide is racially motivated, not in an aesthetic manner since both ethnic groups are Nigerian by descent but rather, in a cultural and religious manner. The Igbo-Hausa divide and the struggle of Biafra lay a foundation for the theme of race, however it is the representation of the Igbo majority that conveys the theme of race on a greater scale. Olanna and Odenigbo, alongside their intellectual friends, have troubled many critics who argue the ‘African authenticity’ of the novel.

They cite these characters who are: ‘educated, drive cars and are not starving,’ as apparently not authentic – a notion that Adichie has addressed emphatically in a TEDtalks lecture in which she breaks down the African stereotypes by warning readers against subscribing to the ‘single story’ – our immersion in media and public opinion had led to narrow minded stereotypes which then disappoint us when we realise how far fetched these assumptions really are.

Characters such as Richard’s anglophile servant Harrison and Richard who is more frequently described as the ‘other’ in this novel are contrastingly juxtaposed as the antithesis of one another. Harrison prides himself on his wealth of knowledge on Britain and British cooking whilst Richard consciously identifies as a Biafran though maintaining an internal conflict between his white British identity and his newly conceived Biafra identity, eventually conceding that: ‘The war isn’t my story to tell really,’ in acknowledgment to his intention to write up the history of Biafra.

Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ utilises the contrast between light and dark juxtaposed against the corresponding European versus African contrast to present the theme of racism. The Company takes advantage of the brutal colonisation of the Congo to exploit the cheap labour in the form of ‘uncivilised’ Congolese natives – of whom they intend to civilise in a ‘humane’ way. The notion of which is implicitly mocked by Conrad: ‘[… ] after all, I was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings,’ a reflection of the barbaric handling of native slaves.

Despite the fact that ‘Heart of Darkness’ is set in the Congo this does not detract from the ‘otherness’ felt by the reader towards the natives – a theory backed by Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris. Many critics – of which Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe is most vocal – have called Conrad a racist for his gratuitous use of the word ‘n****r’ and his excessive fixation with ‘blackness’: ‘Certainly Conrad had a problem with n****rs. His inordinate love of that word itself should be of interest to psychoanalysts.

Sometimes his fixation on blackness is equally interesting,’ Chinua Achebe writes. Perhaps it is Conrad’s identity as a white man writing about the detached reality of a black Africa colonised by his own people that implicitly mars the novel’s authenticity. The ultimate question posed towards the novel in regards to race is whether Conrad can be considered a racist for his dehumanisation of the African people in an ironic attempt to: ‘point out the hypocrisy of European attitudes towards Africa,’ in the words of one such critic.

The question is actively debated by critics on both sides; some – led by Achebe – argue that he is a racist, only using Africa: ‘as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognisable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril [… ] reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind. ‘ Whilst there is some truth in this, critics on the other side of the debate would respond by saying that Achebe is judging Conrad’s supposed racism on a modern day scale rather than in a nineteenth-century context.

In conclusion, racism as a theme in explored by the writers in a range of other themes but most predominantly the theme of colonialism – a context which not only forms the setting – in the case of ‘Heart of Darkness’ – or even the foundation for independence – in the case of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ but also the mood and tone of the novels. Colonialism left Nigeria in a political disarray and catalysed the inevitable rift between the Hausa and Igbo ethnic groups in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ whilst also forming the perfect cover up for corrupt European traders such as The Company to conduct their exploitative treatment of cheap African Labour.