The racism in The Searchers and Heart of Darkness

I can vividly recall my strong negative reaction to Joseph Conrad’s highly acclaimed novel Heart of Darkness. Its racism appalled me as I wrote in a blog post ten years ago.

I remember the first time I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hailed by critics as a masterpiece. I was appalled at the blatantly racist portrayals of Africans and could barely get through the book. Many years later, I re-read it. The shock and anger that the original reading had aroused in me had worn off and I could see and appreciate Conrad’s skill with words in creating the deepening sense of foreboding as Marlow goes deeper into the jungle in search of Kurtz.

Ironically, Chinua Achebe gave a talk criticizing the book and saying that Conrad’s novel, whatever its other merits, perpetuated African stereotypes. The talk attracted a lot of attention and Conrad’s many admirers leapt to his defense, saying that Conrad was a product of his times and merely reflecting the views then current and that his book was actually a critique of the evils of colonialism.

Maybe so, but the racism was still there and still bothered me even on the second reading.

I had a similar reaction to the 1956 John Ford western The Searchers that stars John Wayne. I had heard about how this was a great western, perhaps even the greatest western, but thought it shockingly racist and misogynistic and was mystified that so many famous film directors and critics spoke of it as a masterpiece and how they repeatedly watched it. (The fact that I have always disliked Wayne, someone I consider to be a right-wing macho poseur, increased my distaste for the film whereas Wayne’s admirers seemed to think his presence somehow made the film more likable.)

In this segment from the radio program Studio 360 Arun Venugopal thoughtfully discusses the film and its problematic racism and why so many people seem willing to overlook it and call it a classic.

“The Searchers” showcased John Wayne, turning his archetypal strength and stoicism into viciousness as a returned soldier hell-bent on revenge against the Comanche who killed his family in a raid. The plot invokes the centuries-old captivity narrative in the figure of his niece, played by Natalie Wood, who has been assimilated in the tribe; Wayne’s character considers killing her rather than allow her to live “corrupted.”

Race hatred this blatant had rarely been seen on film. However, in a society still steeped in segregation, critics and viewers barely noted the film’s overtones of racial violence when it was first released.

Today, many film critics call “The Searchers” awkward and unwatchable. Yet a generation of American directors has taken cues from Ford’s cinematography and stark psychological portraiture, including Steven Spielberg, Michael Cimino and Martin Scorcese, who called Wayne’s character “John Ford’s Ahab,” and claims to re-watch “The Searchers” up to twice a year. The figure of an honorable man demented by violence and revenge took its place as a new type of American anti-hero.

It may well be that the technical skills that Conrad displays in his book and Ford in his film are considerable. But does that compensate for the racism of each? To my mind, no. Defenders may argue that each work is not racist in itself but merely depict the racism of the eras it portrays. The problem is that the nonwhite people in both works and women in the film have little or no agency and the stories are told entirely from the perspective of the white male protagonists and thus automatically confers on them the sympathy of the audience that tends to identify with the main protagonists, even if they are deeply flawed.

Rebecca Solnit points out how the way that stories are framed influences whom we feel empathy for. She starts by pointing out how Donald Trump repeatedly stresses the danger felt by Americans by the presence of refuges, a trope endlessly repeated by his acolytes.

So many of our problems are storytelling problems. So often those who do have voices use them to limit who else is heard and to shout down others who speak. Our job is always to listen harder, to listen to who is excluded, to imagine what happens if you shift the center of the story.

I grew up on cowboy movies in which Native Americans defending themselves in their homelands were portrayed as invaders galloping into the frame of the camera. The camera stayed with the actual invaders, the white people in covered wagons, and by making them the fixed center of the movies made them the victims instead of the perpetrators; the stable presence, not the disruptors.

When the feminist hurricane called #MeToo swept the US and then to some extent the world, something complex and mysterious changed so that stories that had been disbelieved, rejected, silenced, trivialized, could be heard for the first time in ways that mattered. Some of the stories were, at first, about the most powerful men in media and entertainment; then their women victims; then, eventually, California farmworker women and janitors and restaurant workers.

Yet too often the journalism and conversations focused on how all this affected men. We had so many stories about how men didn’t feel as comfortable and confident at work, but I don’t recall a single story about how women felt more comfortable and confident that their bosses and co-workers wouldn’t harass or assault them. You see this kind of framework over and over: for example, the problem of homelessness gets framed as how it annoys those with houses rather than traumatizes those without.

Whenever a story of social conflict breaks, the first question to ask is: whose story is it? Who’s been put at the center? Who does the narrator tell us matters? Whose rights and needs do they dismiss? And what happens if you move the center?

And that is the problem with the book and the film. They are framed with the oppressors at the center, with the other characters being mere foils who have to react to them.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    I teach British Literature classes, and I’ve struggled quite a bit with Heart of Darkness, adding and subtracting it from the syllabus over time. The problem is that I want to spend time in class discussing the moral implications of colonialism, but “the canon” (as expressed in the Norton Anthology) doesn’t do a great job with addressing this. I’ve tried pairing the work with Achebe’s essay to give another perspective. Of course, HoD is very very very anti-colonialist, and paints colonialism in the worst light possible, so there’s that.

    I used to pair it with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which is also all about the deleterious moral effects of colonialism on the colonists while ignoring the effects on the colonized. (That’s also a point that Frederick Douglass brings up in his autobiography — one of his “owners” had a relative visit from New England, who started off against slavery but was eventually, as Douglass describes it, morally ruined by it.) Anyway, last year I dropped HoD from the syllabus again — I decided Achebe’s argument was too compelling.

    Another tough one is Kipling’s Man who would be King. I added it to my syllabus about fifteen years ago, because “We’ll go into Afghanistan and be worshipped as gods welcomed as liberators!” seemed rather timely back then. The story does a good job of portraying how the Empire grew in India, too — how a small group with boxes of rifles and military knowledge could exploit intertribal rivalry and subvert local rulers to build an empire. But it’s also a story where the natives aren’t portrayed as particularly human — and of course Kipling is always a problem. “White Man’s Burden” is a huge stumbling block, and it’s the only one of his poems in the anthology other than “If,” which is also dreadful. (Why not at least “Gunga Din,” Norton — or was torpedoing his reputation the point?)

    I can’t address The Searchers because I haven’t seen it.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Wayne’s character considers killing her rather than allow her to live “corrupted.”

    He doesn’t consider killing her; he is determined to kill her, and is only prevented from doing so by his friend. By the next time they meet, he’s had a change of heart, which is never (IIRC) explained.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Stedman seems even more problematic in terms of seeing slavery as a necessity, while Conrad makes no excuses for (at least the Belgian version of) Colonialism.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    I grew up on cowboy movies in which Native Americans defending themselves in their homelands were portrayed as invaders galloping into the frame of the camera.

    There were many films like that. But there were many which were more nuanced, including some considered classics. My own favourite Ford Western is Fort Apache. It’s made very clear who the “bad” guys are; the corrupt Indian agent, and the incompetent cavalry commander Lt Col Thursday (played by Henry Fonda*). Of course, it’s still a White Man story, with the Apaches (already having been confined to reservations) merely reacting (and doing so quite understandably). And the incompetence of the commander (killed in action) is covered up “for the good of the regiment”.

    If I were to guess at Ford’s overall view of indigenous people from his films, it would be one of patronizing sympathy; regret at the injustices done them, but for the greater good (for white folk, anyway) in the long run.

    *Who starred in many good Westerns, including The Ox-Bow Incident. A very different role.

  5. Jazzlet says

    Tabby Lavalamp, no argument from me.

    I read Heart of Darkness at some point in my teens on the reccomendation of one of my English teachers, if I remember correctly when I was starting to think about sexism and to a lesser extent racism, but going in with no preconception other than knowng that it was a ‘classic’ and even as a basically ignorant white girl found it excruciating. It was a signficant factor in my decision that I would do mostly sciences for A Levels. John Wayne provoked a similar reaction as I grew older.

  6. says

    Dealing with things like Heart of Darkness is really complicated, and made more complicated by the fact that we rarely fully know what we’re trying to do, and further by the fact that people tend to dive immediately in to their respective foxholes when topics like this arise.

    In order to understand how the story came to be, and why it is the way it is, we need to evaluate it in terms of its own time and culture. Yet, in order to understand how it works on us today, we need to evaluate it in terms of our time, our culture. These things are obvious when stated, of course, but all too often we find today’s culture applied to then.

    Understanding the origins of the story, its history, is quite a different thing from understanding how it fits in to our own cultural milieu. While the two are entangled, they are not the same thing. A serious, critical, evaluation of a book like that (or any of a 100 million other artifacts) has to take both into account, because they are entangled, but would do well to keep them separate.

    It is not apologizing for racism to evaluate Conrad’s books in the context of their time, but unless you are pretty careful, it can sure as hell look like you’re apologizing. On the flip side, it is not hanging Conrad with 2019 theory, well past the statute of limitations, to evaluate the book in the context of here and now — but it sure as hell can look like that’s what you’re doing.

    Heart of Darkness was not a comfortable book then, and it is not a comfortable book now. It is genuinely interesting to examine how the details have changed, but the overall effect is much the same.

    There does seem, to be honest, to be a little cottage industry in digging up artifacts from decades past, applying modern viewpoints, modern ideals, modern theory, and then indicting the original author on those grounds. It’s a quick way to raise a twitter mob to, um, do whatever it is that twitter mobs do.

  7. drken says

    Personally, I like Heart of Darkness, but I also understand it was written 120 years ago by somebody who had no specific issue with Europeans taking the resources out of countries on other continents (See Nostromo for an example of that). However, the Belgian Congo was particularly bad, even by the standards of the time, with some of the more gruesome examples in the book being based on real events and people. Even somebody who viewed the English colonies as the place “where the real work is done” (as he put it) was horrified by what was happening. Also, he didn’t set out to write an anti-colonist book and was surprised to learn how the book inspired many anti-colonists. So, Conrad was a racist (at least by our standards) and a colonist, but what he saw there repulsed even him, inspiring him to write a particularly gruesome book. At least that’s the perspective I bring to the book when I read it.

    However, the Africans in Heart of Darkness get short shrift because the book isn’t about them, the Congo is just the setting. It’s about Europeans and the disconnect between the view held by those back at home that they were engaged in a noble venture to “bring civilization to the savages” and the brutal cash grab that was actually going on. IMHO, if you include Heart of Darkness in a syllabus so you have a book about Africa, then you’re missing the point. You learn little about Africa and even less about Africans. It is important to understand the effect of colonizing on the colonizers, but if that’s the only perspective you get, that’s a problem.

    Also, John Wayne was a horrible racist, even for his time. For examples of that, just read anything he ever had to say on the subject of race. John Ford was also a racist, but a very talented and influential film maker. Luckily, most of the film makers inspired by him have long discarded Hollywood’s horrible depiction of Native Americans.

  8. overgrownhobbit says

    The Searchers was the first Wayne movie I ever saw the entire way through.

    To say I was unimpressed was an understatement. I always figured that the positives of the movie were that it was shot, on location, in the American southwest in the time’s equivalent of high def-film. After the sweeping vistas of the opening scenes, we are treated to John Wayne, and his complete inability to broadcast emotions other than disgust and arrogance. We see the women literally frozen in the background while the big man speaks.

    When John Wayne goes out to kick some ass the movie makes sure to point out that he, and he alone, is the baddest guy in the movie, not allowing any other characters to show any superior skills compared to him. I am sure at the time it came off like JW’s character was a superman among mortals, but today he comes off like his friends are too tired to rein in his destructive behavior and they try hard to avoid pissing him off.

    I guess I should be thankful that while I was in high school they did not make us read Heart of Darkness (many of my classmates read it on their own) and instead we read Things Fall Apart by Achebe.

  9. mnb0 says

    “Stedman seems even more problematic in terms of seeing slavery as a necessity.”
    He doesn’t really express an opinion pro or con slavery, let alone colonialism. But he manages to portray coloured people as real people. Also he’s painstakingly honest about the cruelty of slaveholders. Just take a look at the pictures at the Wikipedia site. So evaluating his book in the context of his time is in no danger of becoming apologizing.

  10. ColeYote says

    I majored in film, ran into some similar problems with that. Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer are two of the most important films from the early years of Hollywood, but the latter makes blackface a significant plot point, while the former is fucking pro-KKK propaganda and may have inspired the Klan’s rebirth a few years later.

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