An incident in literary history that I have previously covered for this series was when, about 40 years ago, an essay by Chinua Achebe was published that changed the way literary scholars talked about Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In the essay, Achebe leveled claims of blatant, overarching, and thorough racism in Conrad’s time-tested classic about imperialism in Africa.
The ensuing devaluation of Conrad’s novella was not permanent, however, and Heart of Darkness is once again at the forefront of most higher-level high-school and lower-division university curricula. But the conversations about it have changed, and now its racism is discussed alongside the complexity of its visual imagery. Indeed, in high schools across America Heart of Darkness is taught in the same classrooms as Achebe’s own novel, Things Fall Apart, with its African perspective on imperialism.
The recent popular success of Rebecca Skloot’s work of creative nonfiction, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, may be seen as a further incident in the progressive recontextualization of historical objects and ideas; in Skloot’s case, the historical object is one of immense scientific importance: the HeLa cell. Just like Conrad’s novella, the importance of the HeLa cell is obviously not diminished by the exploitation in its history, but that exploitation has become an integral part of telling that history.