In the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s [Vachel Lindsay’s] work was widely anthologized and taught, until (perhaps) it became embarrassingly apparent that one of his foundational poems, “The Congo,” is undeniably racist (“Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,/ Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable”); interest began to cool, until he was evicted from The Norton Anthology, and from many, if not most, classrooms.
However, more than political correctness was at stake in Lindsay’s eclipse. The racism of “The Congo” is almost certainly unintentional, an epiphenomenon of a late Romantic valorizing of the “primitive”; even Yeats was heir to this problematic attitude.—T.R. Hummer, my emphasis.
In my original conception of this talk, I had thought to conclude it nicely on an appropriately positive note in which I would suggest from my privileged position in African and Western culture some advantages the West might derive from Africa once it rid its mind of old prejudices and began to look at Africa not through a haze of distortions and cheap mystifications but quite simply as a continent of people–not angels, but not rudimentary souls either–just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society. But as I thought more about the stereotype image, about its grip and pervasiveness, about the willful tenacity with which the West holds it to its heart; when I thought of your television and the cinema and newspapers, about books read in school and out of school, of churches preaching to empty pews about the need to send help to the heathen in Africa, I realized that no easy optimism was possible. And there is something totally wrong in offering bribes to the West in return for its good opinion of Africa. Ultimately, the abandonment of unwholesome thoughts must be its own and only reward. Although I have used the word willful . . . to characterize the West’s view of Africa it may well be that what is happening at this stage is more akin to reflex action than calculated malice. Which does not make the situation more, but less, hopeful.–Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa,” my emphasis.