Heart of Darkness

April 16, 2019
Joseph Conrad next to the cover of Heart of Darkness with two question marks
Art by Kirsten Hemrich

Trigger Warning: Explicit Language


I noticed the word on the board before anything else. I stared at it. It stared back at me. I looked around to see if anyone shared my reaction. I squinted my eyes to study the font. Did he type that out or was it copied and pasted? If he typed it – does that mean he would say it?

My eyes flurried across the room for help. But of course, it was not the same for my colleagues and me. No one was sitting there as dumbfounded as I was. No one’s heart pounded as mine did. The word was taunting me. It hung in the middle of the page by its fingers and dangled right before my eyes. It was ready to fall off onto the lips of a man so pale he was tinted a shade of blue-green. I could not do anything except wait. Wait for the moment of triumph or defeat. Wait for my reaction.


My first encounter with the novel, Heart of Darkness, was in high school. I did not read it. (I was a very lazy student back then. I had even neglected to finish The Color Purple when it was assigned to us. What I labeled “senioritis,” I would now call a shameful lack of appreciation. Or perhaps the problem was I didn’t know I should have been grateful in the first place.) I did not read the book, therefore I, like most of my colleagues in that class, could not engage in Mr. Broomhead’s meaningful discussion about the text. Its complexities, its connotations, its symbolism.

I liked Mr. Broomhead. He didn’t assign reading quizzes and often times he would give me passes to go to the bathroom and did not question when I didn’t return until the next day. He had green, bulging eyes that were magnified behind his wide framed glasses – and though they could have – they never made presumptions about me. But even with all this, he was not worth opening that God forsaken book. So, for a whole week, Mr. Broomhead would wave his long, brittle limbs, stutter his swollen lips, and shuffle his feet in a rhythm-less tune up and down the classroom to an audience who had not gotten further than the preface.

Eventually, Mr. Broomhead gave up and decided we would watch the movie Apocalypse Now instead. To my surprise, I did not skip class during these sessions. (Usually I would go to Dunkin’ Donuts and enjoy the long line that separated a bagel with cream cheese from myself, but there’s little to no reason to skip a movie day. To many, it provided the perfect setting for a nap.)  I watched the movie in its entirety. However, I did not understand it. Not one bit. I don’t think anyone else did either. So again, when Mr. Broomhead would pause the film to ask the class to make observations compared to the corresponding text, he shrunk back in his seat at the sight of 48 bloated, vacant eyes piercing his dome.


I chose not to read Heart of Darkness because, at the time, it was the densest book I had ever come across in my entire existence and I did not care that at this point in my life, my only rendezvous with fiction consisted solely of YA novels. Twilight, in my so humble opinion, was art. Heart of Darkness was labor.

A classmate of mine, Ashley, had read the text simply out of boredom.

            It’s actually pretty good.


            Yeah, I thought it was - like interesting. Like – when they get to Africa... I think you should read it.


The second time I was forced to read Heart of Darkness was sophomore year in college. To my dismay I had entered Mr. Luf’s class “Modernist Fiction into Film” late, and so, the expectation was to have read Heart of Darkness by my first class' meeting. I, to my fortune, had already encountered it in high school. I decided that was good enough.


Mr. Luf was far less equipped to handle the fact I was the only person of color in his class and each morning when he saw my name I knew he was looking for the only brown face in the room. I did not let this bother me so much. This is what I assumed most professors at the University of Virginia did when they took attendance, he just happened to be the worst at hiding it. Looking back now, I wonder if that was really what he saw when he took my attendance. If I had the chance, I would ask him if he saw my color at all.


The Nigger of the Narcissus.

Mr. Luf was indulging us some much-needed context regarding Joseph Conrad. He spoke of his early life, his native languages and of course his past works. He spent of lot of time on the title that marked the start of Conrad’s major career.

The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (1897)

American title= Children of the Sea.

Conrad: “America would not buy a book about niggers.”  Dubious

Two possibilities:

1)    Figure of African descent as the main character

2)    Objection to word


Mr. Luf spoke all his notes aloud with nonchalance and simplicity.  


My reaction after he had said it was a smile. I don’t know why. Perhaps I was in shock. Perhaps it was my body’s natural instinct to not appear angry in the presence of controversy. Perhaps it was because a small part of me found this entire situation so incredibly pathetic I was brought to giggles instead of tears. (This is my usual reaction to such events. I hope one day I am equipped with funds to see a therapist.)

I remember before he had said it he had given a disclaimer.

It’s the name of the title- I have to say it. I’m just going to say it.

That was his reasoning. I’m not sure if this is the same reasoning behind the dozen other times he said it in that class period.


In the coming weeks, we would analyze Heart of Darkness. We read four contrasting essays. One of which authored by Chinua Achebe. Achebe was the only one to denounce Conrad’s work. He criticized Heart of Darkness as “preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind.” This was one of the only times I propped up in my seat in excitement. I agreed. I wanted to speak further about this. However, we didn’t ponder this interpretation for long. Regardless of the way Africa (which in this class was a homogenous country) was portrayed, Mr. Luf explained that Conrad still excelled in foregrounding the subjective understanding of a western, male individual. This was not a class to acknowledge or criticize how wrong that perspective was. Apparently, it couldn’t even be mentioned in passing.


Though Mr. Luf was stoic in his composure, he let his vocabulary enliven the classroom.

I remained dispirited. I often found myself looking around to see if the other students were as lost as I was. His diction didn’t cater to a girl who came from a high school with ceiling tiles falling from the sky. Even so, I knew that we were not discussing what needed to be addressed.


We spent a lot of time examining instances of impressionism in Heart of Darkness. (That is a “literary or artistic style that seeks to capture a feeling or experience rather than to achieve accurate depiction.”) Kurtz had apparently been driven to madness due to his detachment from “socialization.” His passing words, and Luf’s favorite example, were meant to convey notions of human evil far beyond human comprehension. “The horror, the horror,” was apparently referring to the evil Kurtz had witnessed during his stay in the Congo of Africa.


Often times in that class I thought about Mr. Broomhead. I thought about how differently my experience with this text would have gone had I learned it from the man with the kind, green eyes. Maybe I would not have put myself in this situation in the first place coming into college. Upon seeing the syllabus, I would have known that this was not the setting to discuss a “masterpiece” such as Heart of Darkness.

I thought back and pondered what I would have collected had I spent less time judging his sporadic behavior and more time paying attention. Perhaps his stutters were mistaken for a loss of words. Perhaps his rhythm-less feet moved with blind frustration. Perhaps his limbs did not fly around in disarray, but in anger and disbelief.

But something also tells me his anger wasn’t directed at the room full of kids who stared at him with vacant eyes.


Surely, he was not angry with us.  

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