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Incorporating Nonfiction in the Study of Literature

This past January the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) released a Position Statement on the Role of Nonfiction Literature (K-12), which proposed a "paradigm shift" in the way nonfiction texts are employed in English classrooms. Their argument is that contemporary nonfiction "does more than communicate information" and, instead, "addresses historical silences; explores historic and contemporary events rooted in racism, oppression, and violence, and highlights courageous trailblazers and organized groups working toward societal transformation and liberation."


In all of our courses at Literary Focus, we bring in a series of nonfiction texts to supplement the novels and plays we are reading to support the NCTE's position for the role nonfiction should play in our curriculum. The first reading assignment in every course is a two-page condensed biography of the author or playwright, which we use to help students understand the time period in which the work was written and the perspective that the author or playwright might have based on personal experience.


For instance, prior to reading Heart of Darkness, students read the following biography of Joseph Conrad that was adapted from the entry on the Encyclopedia Britannica website:




When students read Heart of Darkness, we want them to focus on Conrad's attitude towards imperialism and the colonization of Africa in the late 19th century. With that political interpretation of the novel as our thematic focus, we use the 2009 AP Literary Argument (Form B) prompt for the final essay, which asks students to analyze a novel or play that explores a political or social issue that in some way "contributes to a meaning of the work as a whole":



When students read Conrad's biography, we have them look for clues that might reveal how he would feel about the imperial mission considering his family history and his personal life experiences. When we ask students what struck them as potentially pertinent in his biography, many will remark that Conrad was born in 1857 in "Russian-occupied Ukraine," which implies he and his family were victims of Russian aggression. We also learn that when the author was six years old, his father, Apollo—who is described as "a poet and an ardent Polish patriot"—was also one of the revolutionaries who "helped organize a Polish insurrection against Russian rule in 1863," which suggests that Conrad was raised in a family environment that actively opposed the occupying Russian forces that was trying to impose their will on a native people. Whether it is the Russian occupation of Poland or the European colonization of Africa, Conrad's sympathies—based on his family history and personal experience—would seem to lie with those being occupied rather than with the occupiers.

Furthermore, we learn from Conrad's biography that after the failed insurrection that was led by his father, Conrad's parents were arrested, and Conrad was "sent with his family into exile in northern Russia." Not only do we learn that Conrad's family had to live in forced exile away from their homeland during his childhood, we also learn that his mother died from tuberculosis while in Siberia, the "harsh climate" listed as a significant contributor to her death. One could assume that Conrad's anti-imperial stance would not just be political, but personal.

While Conrad's family history and childhood experience certainly would seem to impact his perspective on colonialism, it did not prevent him from taking a job as a steamboat captain bound for the Congo in 1890. For students to understand the political significance of Conrad's novella, they first have to understand the history of colonization, and especially the "Scramble for Africa" in the late 19th century. In class we will present slides that not only show the way Africa was divided between competing European nations,

but also the moral rationale that justified the entire colonial enterprise, as exemplified by King Leopold II's proclamation at the Brussels Conference in 1876 that the colonization of Africa was an altruistic, noble pursuit.


Despite the prevailing attitudes of the day, Conrad's first-hand experience in the Congo allowed him to witness the atrocities that were committed in the name of altruism and progress. According to his biography, the experience that he had in the Congo was personally "traumatic" for him, and he "suffered psychological, spiritual, even metaphysical shock" from what he witnessed. Conrad claimed that before he went to the Congo, he was "a mere animal," which suggests that his humanity was awakened in Africa by witnessing first-hand the suffering that was inflicted on fellow human beings through an enterprise in which he was complicit.


To help students understand the type of depravity that Conrad witnessed in the Congo, we will share pictures taken by Christian missionaries in the late 19th century that show the severed hands of so-called "rebels" who had allegedly been killed for disrupting Belgian operations in the Congo Free State. What these missionaries later discovered, however, was that the missing hands were not necessarily taken from rebels who had been killed, but from neighboring

tribes to account for bullets that Leopold's "Force

Publique" had most likely used for their own purposes

—such as for hunting game to feed their families.


The result was that a slew of native people in neighboring villages were missing hands, which the missionaries documented in disturbing photographs that eventually caused an outcry when published in European and American newspapers. In addition to showing students the missionary photographs, we have them read a two-page excerpt from "The Hidden Holocaust: How King Leopold II Murdered 10 Million Africans" by Takudzwa Hillary Chiwanza in the The African Exponent (2020) to highlight the

atrocities committed during King Leopold's reign:




When students read Conrad's novella, which was published in serial form in 1899, they should understand the role it played in bringing attention to the atrocities committed in the Congo, which eventually led to King Leopold II's relinquishing his private holdings in the colony in 1908. Conrad's novella also made Europeans question the morality of the entire colonial enterprise.


Despite the positive impact that Conrad's novella had in effecting change in the Congo, there are still contemporary voices that are critical of Conrad's depiction of native Africans. The most famous is Chinua Achebe's 1975 address, "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'" at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst that accuses Conrad of being a "bloody racist" and that his novella should not be read or considered "a great work of art." After students read Part II of Conrad's novella, which contains most of the passages that Achebe cites in his address, we have them read the following excerpt from Achebe's speech that outlines his argument:




After students read the excerpt from Achebe's essay, we analyze the passages that he cites and discuss whether they are, indeed, racist in their depictions of the native Africans. Before we can have that discussion, however, we must first define the term "racist." According to the Merriam-Webster's dictionary, racism is "a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race." With that definition in mind, we examine Conrad's depiction of the native Africans dancing on the shore, who Marlow claims "howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces." Furthermore, Marlow claims that what "thrilled" him most was the realization that these African natives were "not inhuman" and that Europeans shared a "remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar," an admission that Marlow tells the men on the Nellie was "[u]gly" to him:


Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself

that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of

that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote

from the night of first ages—could comprehend.


The question for students to consider is whether Marlow's admission is a sign of Conrad's racism, or is it simply his character's recognition of his own racist assumptions and prejudices. Conrad has Marlow tell his story to the men on the Nellie, who have never been to Africa and most likely held similar views as Marlow's aunt, who believed whole-heartedly in the imperial mission of "weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways." Marlow says that there was "a lot of such rot let loose in print and talk just about that time." When Marlow talks of the "remote kinship" he felt with these native Africans, the men no doubt would have found that admission disturbing, too, which Conrad implies by having one of the men interrupt Marlow's tale with a grunt:


Who's that grunting? You wonder I didn't go ashore for a howl and and dance?

Well, no—I didn't . Fine sentiments, you say? Fine sentiments, be hanged! I had

no time. I had to mess about with the white-lead and strips of woolen blanket

helping to put bandages on those leaky steam-pipes—I tell you.


When we try to determine Conrad's intent in this passage, we have to ask whether Marlow is trying to promote the "superiority" of white Europeans—which certainly would be racist—or is he trying to challenge the prejudicial assumptions that he and the men on the Nellie share.


When Marlow later describes the fireman, whom he calls an "improved specimen" because he had been trained to tend the "vertical boiler" on the steamship, Marlow claims that to see him running the European machinery was "as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat." In other words, he was "useful because he had been instructed," but Marlow infers that his proper place was not on the steamship, but rather down on the river's edge with the other native dancers. Is that because Conrad intends for the reader to see the fireman as inferior to white Europeans, or because he has been artificially trained to do the same type of "monkey tricks" that Marlow claims they all had been trained to do within European society—such as "you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for—what is it? half-a-crown a tumble—." To show how Marlow is touching a nerve with his audience on the Nellie, Conrad has one of the men respond in the darkness, "Try to be civil, Marlow." We have to ask who is the one being insulted here: the native fireman or the Europeans who think they are superior to the Africans?


Finally, when Marlow describes the cannibals who form the crew of the steamship heading upriver, he marvels at the "restraint" they display for not attacking the white men, especially since they were "brought to the test of an inexorable physical necessity"—namely, their desperate hunger after the rotten hippo meat that they had been carrying was thrown overboard by the white men. Marlow claims he "would just as soon have expected restraint from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield" than to have expected the cannibals to show this type of restraint. Again, we have students consider whether this is racist, or whether Marlow is simply pointing out his own racist assumptions about the cannibals—ones that he assumes his audience on the Nellie also shares. The fact is that the cannibals are the ones who do show "restraint"—rather than the white Europeans—and it is Kurtz, supposedly is the epitome of the noble ideals of European civilization, who turns out to be a depraved, "hollow sham" that ultimately "lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts."


As we assess Conrad's novella in light of Achebe's accusation, we also discuss what it means to be an "anti-racist"—a term popularized by the scholar Ibram X. Kendi—which is defined as "the practice of identifying and opposing racism with the goal of actively changing policies, behaviors, and beliefs that perpetuate racist ideas." To help students understand what this term means, we read Anna North's article in Vox, "What It Means to Be Anti-Racist" (2020):



North's article begins with the story of Amy Cooper, who infamously called the police in New York City after a Black bird-watcher in Central Park, Christian Cooper, asked her to adhere to the law and put her dog on a leash. She is caught on video telling him in response that she is going to tell the police that "there's an African American man threatening my life," knowing the seriousness of that accusation in our society. When she later apologizes for her actions, she wants everyone to know that despite her poor behavior, she is "not a racist."


As North notes in her article, to be "anti-racist" is to "actively fight against racism rather than passively claim to be non-racist," which Kendi calls "a mask for racism." North explains further that


[t]o be an anti-racist, Kendi and others say, requires an understanding of history—

an understanding that racial disparities [. . .] have their roots, not in some failing by

people of color, but in policies that serve to prop up white supremacy.


When considering Conrad's novella in light of this definition, students have to determine whether Conrad's intent was to perpetuate the "dehumanization of Africa and Africans"—which Achebe claims—or to challenge the racist and prejudicial assumptions of his readership. When we think about the effect that his novella had on people's perception of imperialism, it is hard not to argue that his intent was—in the words of Malini Ranganathan of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center—"taking stock of and eradicating policies that are racist, that have racist outcomes, and making sure that, ultimately, we're working towards a much more egalitarian, emancipatory society."


The thought-provoking discussions that we have on Conrad's thematic intent are based in large part on our use of nonfiction to supplement our reading of the novella. Even though the literature is still the central focus of the unit, the issues raised in the fictional world are based on real-world issues that we still grapple with in the present day. Exploring these issues through the use of supplemental, nonfiction texts allows us to engage with the literature in a much more nuanced, comprehensive, and relevant manner. Even though Conrad wrote his novel in 1899, the issues that we discuss in class are contemporary ones that will help students better understand themselves and the world in which they live.


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