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Perspectives Of The “Negro” By Joseph Conrad

Perspective is defined as “a state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, etc. , in having a meaningful interrelationship. ” (Dictionary. com, 2008). The views of people on certain objects, event or people can differ, depending on their perspective. In literature, Perspective pertains to which point of view is employed in a certain work. However, perspective is also seen in an author’s take on a certain topic, depending on the context from which he bases what he is writing. A topic of interest for the purposes of this paper is the concept or the view of the Black people.

This author believes that there may have never been a topic as controversial as the issue of race, especially for the people of color. There are a multitude of views and perspective on the topic of the Black race. Some may talk about them in the eyes of an outsider. Yet there are also works that come from themselves as well. The following is a comparison of two such works. The first one was written by Joseph Conrad, a Ukrainian who lived in England and became a novelist. He wrote “The Heart of Darkness”, which is set in Africa, along the Congo River.

Conrad’s novel presents a picture of the natives, as slaves during when the British Empire was promoting “civilization” by colonizing far flung places. The other work of literature is actually a compilation of representative works during the Harlem Renaissance. “The Portable Harlem Renaissance reader” edited by David Lewis contains 45 works of African-American authors who lived and wrote during that time in American history when the black people were living in the cities and were far from being slaves anymore.

Works of interest in this compilation are Alaine Locke’s “The New Negro”, James Johnson’s “Black Manhattan”, “Migration of the Talented Tenth” by Carter Woodson and several works by the Hughes Langston. “The Heart of Darkness” is a book by Joseph Conrad which he wrote in 1890. It is about Marlow, as a riverboat captain with the Company- a Belgian concern organized to trade in the Congo and his views about the voyage along the Congo River with Kurtz, a man described as having “many abilities” This book describes a certain perspective of Africa and its inhabitants.

It considers the setting primordial and primitive. “The Heart of Darkness” is said to be a novel about imperialism. It depicts the result of the Europeans’ colonization of Africa and of its people. It shows the interactions between the “white” traders and the locals, and how inhuman it seems. This book by Conrad is subject to a lot of interpretations. According to some authors (Hawkins, 1979) “The Heart of Darkness” is Conrad’s critiques on Imperialism. It is said that the main character, Marlow, is an observer, a mere voyager who is appalled by the atrociousness and the darkness of life in that land, Africa.

His description of the land, of the characters points out the hypocrisy in Imperialism. Conrad’s depiction of the Congo came from his own experience when he was captain of a steamship that travelled in the Belgian Congo for four months in 1890. “The Heart of Darkness” was written in 1899 and was published in 1902. The characters in the book claim that they are doing business and justify their treatment of the Africans, as part of the project of civilizing them. Conrad, with the use of a detached narrator, lifts up the image of Imperialism for examination to be judged by the readers.

Hawkins (1979) in his article “Conrad’s Critique of Imperialism in Heart of Darkness “claims that throughout Conrad’s fiction,” (He) condemned imperialism of all types, efficient and wasteful, benevolent and malevolent, British and non-British”. Though his view is that of an outsider, a force that can only view but chooses not to participate, being a characters providing the means for others to view these occurrences in such light serves a purpose. Meanwhile, another author viewed Conrad and his work as “racist”.

Achebe in “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “(1977) explains how Conrad’s work, while criticizing Imperialism and its effect on the African people portrayed in “the Heart of Darkness”, is unable to hide how skewed his view of Africa and it inhabitants are. Achebe explains that Conrad used “layers of insulation” between himself and the narrator of the story to artfully detach himself and appear that the words and the sentiments are not his personally, but has been ascribed to the character o Marlow.

However, Achebe’s analysis points out that the manner by which Conrad constructed his statements very much reflect his own thoughts. Achebe’s article on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” explains that the view of the African in this story is not that of a human. They are mere subjects or specimens. Conrad does not attribute speech or thought unto them. Instead, Africans are described as seeming like animals. Furthermore, Africa is said to be a primitive land, the heart of darkness, where the light of civilization did not shine on. (Achebe, 1977)

“The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader” is a compilation of the work of 45 authors who were part of the Harlem Renaissance. It gives readers a sampling of the New Negro’s movement’s most important works. Among these works is Alaine Locke’s “The New Negro”, James Johnson’s “Black Manhattan”, “Migration of the Talented Tenth” by Carter Woodson and several works by the Hughes Langston. The Harlem Renaissance, also known as the “New Negro Movement” is a Period of outstanding literary vigor and creativity that took place in the United States during the 1920s.

The Harlem Renaissance altered the character of literature created by many black American writers, moving from quaint dialect works and conventional imitations of white writers to sophisticated explorations of black life and culture that revealed and stimulated a new confidence and racial pride. The movement was centered in the vast black ghetto of Harlem, in New York City. (Merriam-Webster, 1885) The movement emerged toward the end of World War I in 1918, blossomed in the mid- to late 1920s, and then faded in the mid-1930s.

The Harlem Renaissance marked the first time that mainstream publishers and critics took African American literature seriously and that African American literature and arts attracted significant attention from the nation at large. Although it was primarily a literary movement, it was closely related to developments in African American music, theater, art, and politics. (MSN Encarta, 2008) “The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader” includes Carter G. Woodson’s “The Migration of the Talented Tenth”.

This work discussed the migration of the “Talented Tenth”, or the educated, African-American Leaders from the rural South to the Northern American Cities. Woodson narrated the plight of the black community and the circumstances surrounding the great migration. This work pointed out how the country considered the black community “a problem” and tried to deal with them in terms of space. Some proposed that they be moved back to Africa, others wanted to make them live in one place all together, isolated from the rest of the country.

The pervading situation and arising problem was described by Woodson in these words: “The migration of intelligent blacks, however, has been attended with several handicaps to the race. The large part of the black population is in the South and there it will stay for decades to come. The southern Negroes, therefore, have been robbed of their due part of the talented tenth. The educated blacks have had no constituency in the North and, consequently, have been unable to realize their sweetest dreams of the land of the free. In their new home the enlightened Negro must live with his light under a bushel.

Those left behind in the South soon despair of seeing a brighter day and yield to the yoke. In the places of the leaders who were wont to speak for their people, the whites have raised up Negroes who accept favors offered them on the condition that their lips be sealed up forever on the rights of the Negro. ” (Woodson, 1918) Woodson’s work antedated the other works in the book. His account of the Great migration gives a background on the years leading to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, advocating and promoting the rise of the “New Negro”. This concept was presented by Locke in 1925.

John Locke’s work enshrined the new image of the “Negro”. This transformation was described as not relying on older time-worn models but, rather, embracing a ‘new psychology’ and ‘new sprit’. Central to Locke’s prescription was the mandate that the ‘New Negro’ had to ‘smash’ the entire racial, social and psychological impediments that had long obstructed black achievement (Powell, 1997). John Locke’s work described the difference between the “Old Negro” and the “New Negro” by pointing out how a black individual has been viewed by others and also by himself:

“The Negro has been more of a formula than a human being—a something to be argued about, condemned or defended, to be “kept down,” or “in his place,” or “‘helped up,” to be worried with or worried over, harassed or patronized, a social bogey or a social burden. The thinking Negro even has been induced to share this same general attitude, to focus his attention on controversial issues, to see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality.

Through having had to appeal from the unjust stereotypes of his oppressors and traducers to those of his liberators, friends and benefactors he has had to subscribe to the traditional positions from which his case has been viewed. Little true social or self-understanding has or could come from such a situation” (Locke, 1925) Locke expounds on what the “New Negro” is in his work. Basically, it talks of the self-liberation of the black people by being able to express them, not only more freely, but brilliantly because The New Negro’s conviction is that he is a free man, an American just like any and should be treated as such.

James Johnson’s Black Manhattan (1930), meanwhile, is a history of African American people in New York City, primarily in Harlem, from the seventeenth century through to the twentieth. James Johnson presented factual information about the black population in New York at the time of this publication. he first of these two accounts sketches the general history of blacks in New York through the nineteenth century in the first sixty pages; the bulk of the book is devoted to black theatrical, musical, and literary developments in the city and to the rise of Harlem as “the recognized Negro capital” not only of America but the world.

A review said, however, that Black Manhattan emphasizes positive developments and ignores the growth of slum conditions in the 1920s. By the time the book was published the Depression was setting in, quickly making Johnson’s optimism seem obsolete (Kinnamon, 1987). Black Manhattan recognized the people in the Black Community who were central to the New Negro movement, whose names were otherwise unmentioned in annals during that period. One of the most important authors in this collection of works is Langston Hughes.

His work in the Portable Harlem Renaissance reader include: from The Big Sea, When the Negro Was in Vogue, the Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. His works were representative of the Harlem Renaissance because he represented the “New Negro”. He lived during the time that the black community in Harlem in New York was on the rise. Langston Hughes was a writer. He wrote sixteen books of poems, two novels, three collections of short stories, four volumes of “editorial” and “documentary” fiction, twenty plays, children’s poetry, musicals and operas, three autobiographies, a dozen radio and television scripts and dozens of magazine articles.

In addition, he edited seven anthologies. (Jackson). Hughes wrote about the New Negro and himself in these words: “We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too… If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves. ” (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”, 1926)

“The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader” vivifies the “New Negro”. It is a collection of the works of the Black People-their triumphs, defeats, agony and joy-embodied in the richness of their literature. It describes the physical, social and spiritual journey of the African-Americans in the land of the free. The works of the Harlem Renaissance writers attest that those who were once slaves, thought of as mindless brutes and savages, are the same as every human, possessing intellect and capability beyond the “white man’s” imagination are an intelligent, highly creative and just as human, and just as free.

Such view of the African-Americans, by their own selves is a far cry from how the late 19th century views of the Africans seen in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. In Conrad’s novel, the African natives did not even seem intelligible or even intelligent in the eyes of the character of Marlow. They are seen as a mere background of the story. They are portrayed as objects-to be pitied, to be made “civilized”. Meanwhile, Alaine Locke’s “the New Negro” is an anti thesis of this image. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance put forth their identity as distinct individuals, no longer mindless slaves, nor people of an inferior race.

The Harlem Renaissance writers spoke of the Black people in the first person, because they represented their race. The literature was no longer from an outsider’s perspective. They described themselves. They spoke of their own. Conrad’s perspective and the Harlem Renaissance writers’ perspective also differed somehow in their view of Africa. Conrad viewed it as a wild, brutal and primitive land-it was not his leading characters’ home, it was a foreign land. The Renaissance writers viewed Africa with sentimentality but did not call it home.

Africa is a part of who they are as their roots started there. However, they also claim America- Harlem, as their own, as can be seen in the great migration into the cities of then North years after slavery was eventually banned. Perhaps it is also wise to view the works in the context of their time. Conrad’s work was published in 1902. When the author was writing it, Europe had colonized most of the far-flung places on the planet. However, due to the strain on the resources in keeping the other colonized areas in order, there were a lot of flaws in how the colonized people were governed.

Conrad depicted such flaws and tried to portray that of the oppressed folks but the pervading consciousness of his time might have greatly influenced how he went about the task-resulting in an alienated and detached perspective of the African people. Meanwhile, during the Harlem Renaissance, increased education and employment opportunities were made available to black people after the American Civil War. The Great Migration saw African Americans moving to the North to find work, available because of World War I.

With this phenomenon, New York neighborhood of Harlem housed more educated black people than ever before. Eventually, Harlem became the political and cultural center of the Black people in America. The rights of the African Americans were also being advocated in its growing middle class. However, the movement ended in the 1930s with the coming of the Great Depression when most people lost their jobs. The influential writers also left New York and the other new and young writers did not follow the Harlem Renaissance Movement.

Such events in reality affect the writers’ perspective and the difference in Conrad’s portrayal of the Black people as well as the manner by how Harlem Renaissance writers conveyed their sentiments were influenced by the difference in time line; no matter how little the year between them lay. The “Heart of Darkness” was published in 1902, within the Edwardian Period in Europe. In America, it was the Period of Naturalism, Incidentally, around this time; the Great Migration of the African Americans from the Southern states to the Northern cities was underway. The Harlem Renaissance started in the early twentieth century.

It is important to note that Conrad started writing the “Heart of Darkness” in 1890, still during the Victorian period when the ideas and values of traditional elements, such as heroism, were still present. However, it was also a period when the world was starting to change, as reflected in Conrad’s depiction of the flaws of imperialism in his work. Meanwhile, Naturalism, characterized by a presentation of reality in literary works, was on the rise in America and the “New Negro Movement” utilized such style in the people’s effort to encourage their fellow black people to stand up for their rights.

These circumstances, in one way or another, influenced the writers’ perspective of the descendants of the Africans in the modern world. Joseph Conrad’s view represented by his work is based on his own culture, as part of colonial Europe and by his encounters when he worked on a steamboat travelling along the Congo. His was an outsider’s view. It was that of a third person-detached, alienated though not unaffected. Meanwhile, the Harlem Renaissance writers-Locke, Hughes, Woodson and the others wrote from their own experience and from the need of their people as they perceived it.

Their works were fundamental in the rise of the “New Negro Movement”. Their writings fueled the Harlem Renaissance as they used their voices to let the world know of their existence, of their heritage and of their rights. No doubt they were speaking from the First person’s point of view. Where as Joseph Conrad’s work indirectly condemned slavery by his critique on European Imperialism, The Harlem Renaissance writers out rightly fought racism? Conrad, in his detachment, only projected a view of Africa and its people as a mere background for his work.

And in doing so, He appeared not to recognize the oppressed Africans for their human qualities. (Achebe, 1977). The Harlem Renaissance writers were far from the Black people depicted in Conrad’s work. They are not in the background. They are in the forefront, crusading for equality and justice with their minds and their pens as they wrote furiously about the “New Negro’s” consciousness and the changes to which the world should adapt and view black people in general. From the Harlem Renaissance writers’ perspective, John Conrad’s depiction of the African is that of the “Old Negro”-very much like that of a slave or a second-class citizen.

Yet the Harlem writers presented their own portrait- their own image as representation of the “New Negro”. And though the Harlem Renaissance eventually died out, its impact on African-Americans and on the rest of the world changed the course of the history of its people forever.


Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ” Heart of Darkness, an Authoritative Text, Background and Sources, Criticism. 3rd ed. Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co. , 1988, pp. 251-61 Bremer, Sidney. “Home in Harlem, New York: Lessons from the Harlem Renaissance Writers” PML A, 10, (1990), 47-56 Modern Language Association retrieved on 9 May 2008 from http://www. jstor. org/stable/462342 Conrad, Joseph. “Heart of Darkness”, Joseph Conrad (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. Robert Kimbrough, London: W. W Norton and Co. , 1987 Gogwilt, Christopher. “Envisioning Africa: Racism and Imperialism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. ” ANQ. 14. 2 (Spring 2001): p59. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. CITY UNIV OF NEW YORK. Retrieved on 9 May 2008 from <http://go. galegroup. com/ps/start. do? p=LitRG&u=cuny_main>.

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