The Legacy of Achebe, and his Iconic 1975 Chancellor’s Speech, Attract Scholars to UMass Amherst Symposium

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe

AMHERST, Mass. – The powerful and controversial legacy of the late Nigerian writer, critic and teacher Chinua Achebe will be the focus of a two-day symposium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Achebe’s famous 1975 Chancellor’s Lecture, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”

The Oct. 14-15 symposium, “Forty Years After: Chinua Achebe and Africa in the Global Imagination,” is being organized by the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute (ISI) at UMass Amherst and will bring together a multigenerational group of scholars, including a number of Achebe’s friends and colleagues during his years teaching at UMass Amherst in the early to mid-1970s.

The symposium – with speakers including NoViolet Bulawayo, Johnnetta Cole, Achille Mbembe, Maaza Mengiste, Okey Ndibe, Caryl Phillips, Michael Thelwell, Esther Terry, and Chika Unigwe, among others – will also celebrate the 40th anniversary of the campus’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series. The symposium will take place in Goodell Hall’s Bernie Dallas Room.

On Feb. 18, 1975 Achebe presented “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” as the Chancellor’s Lecture at UMass Amherst. It was then published in The Massachusetts Review. It continues to be recognized as remarkable both for Achebe’s literary criticism and for his broader cultural assessment of how Africa has been perceived and represented in the Western world.  

The aim of the symposium, according to ISI director Stephen Clingman, is to commemorate the event itself and its significance, and to bring the discussion into the present by reconsidering both Achebe’s importance and the shape of things today in terms of the issues he raised.

In his speech, Achebe accused Joseph Conrad of a thoroughgoing racism, saying that his novel, “Heart of Darkness,” renders Africa as “a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.”

In making this case, notes Clingman, Achebe challenged the entire framework in which works of art would be judged, and in which the discussion of Africa would be sustained. “Whether one wholly agrees with his argument or not,” observes Clingman, “it was quite remarkable that he had to be the first to raise the question about such a celebrated novel. It took tremendous courage – a willingness to disrupt the received order.”

Now the question is not only how Africa is represented in Europe and North America, but also how that question has been reversed – how Africans see the global North. Now we have a new generation of writers, creative thinkers and artists who have their own perspectives and are reimagining the order of things, according to Clingman.

“As Achebe himself saw, the question of humanity lies at the heart of it: how the human was defined in the past; how we define it now as we go forward, and of the role Africa can and should play in that. There is also the role of literature, equally important to Achebe,” he said.

For more on the Interdisciplinary Studies Institute and a full schedule for “Forty Years After: Chinua Achebe and Africa in the Global Imagination,” including biographies of the speakers, visit www.umass.edu/isi/achebe-symposium.