Decolonizing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, written in 1899, is a racist book. Conrad himself was a white man, a racist, a white supremacist, and a talented writer,” says interdisciplinary artist Nikesha Breeze in the preface to their poetry book, A Mutiny of Morning: Reclaiming the Black Body from Heart of Darkness. The book appropriates the text of Conrad’s semi-autobiographical novella set in the colonized African interior. Breeze, who is an African-American descendant of the Mende people of Sierra Leone and Assyrian-American immigrants from Iran, symbolically decolonizes the voices of the unnamed African people in Heart of Darkness by creating wipeout poems from every page of the text. 

A Mutiny of Morning grew out of Breeze’s Afrocentric and Afro-Futurist praxis, which centers on reclaiming African diasporic historical narratives and imagining utopian futures to spiritually heal collective traumas. Before its publication, pages from the book were included in the artist’s 2022 multimedia exhibition Four Sites of Return: Ritual, Remembrance, Reparation & Reclamation at New Mexico State University Museum. 

Breeze makes their process visible with scans of modified pages from Heart of Darkness on the left side of the book’s page spreads. Readers can see the artist selecting words, boxing some in, and scribbling others out. On the right, the poems stand apart from the original prose but retain its geography like a scar; the words remain in their original positions relative to the pages so the poems cascade in zigzags of broadly spaced phrases amid ample white space. Each page should be read without hesitating at line breaks and caesuras; the effect signifies a Black voice cutting through the white space of a colonial narrative.

In the preface, Breeze urges their audience not to read the “background text” — Conrad’s text — and only to follow the words they have selected, saying the original pages were “left as a tension point,” an exercise teaching the mind to avoid “the white colonist trap.” However, to understand Breeze’s project, the reader must have prior knowledge of Heart of Darkness. The poems in Mutiny respond to the source material collectively. 

While Heart of Darkness, which centers a White European man and never imbues an African character with a personal, humanistic identity, is regarded by many as a critique of European colonial rule in Africa, it is laden with White Supremacist and misogynist language and imagery. It is, as Breeze says, a racist book. A Mutiny of Morning dismantles and disposes of its Eurocentrism in a reparative act. The collection’s strength is not so much in the individual poems, though some are quite powerful, but in restoring the silenced voices of the African people who are set pieces in its source material.

A Mutiny of Morning: Reclaiming the Black Body from Heart of Darkness is co-published by Black Godexx Press, Zand Graphics Ltd. and Daraja Press in paperback and as a downloadable PDF.  

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