Chinua Achebe called Joseph Conrad a “thoroughgoing racist” for his depiction of native Africans in Heart of Darkness. I happen to disagree. I think the only racism that Conrad imbues the novel with is the detached European view of the plight of colonized Africans. Certainly, his treatment of the colonial culture of Europe is damning.
I could talk about symbology and extended metaphor for hours, because even at a mere 90 pages or so, depending on the publisher, Heart of Darkness is a tricky, complicated block of text. There are many different ways to read it, if you can read it. For many, reading it isn’t even a choice, as it’s well-integrated into the literary canon (post-colonial meets modernism) and thus the favorite fare of English and history professors alike.
I read another novella by Conrad when I was in 8th grade. Something about an adopted Native American boy: the title escapes me. At any rate, I didn’t appreciate it. I doubt I could have appreciated this one either, as it takes a fair bit of brain power to understand everything that’s going on. If you’re having trouble, I’d suggest Apocalypse Now!, which transplants Conrad’s story into the Viet Nam war, with a brilliantly cast Marlon Brando as the mysterious Kurtz.
Read it, and find out how it strikes you: no one person will read it exactly the same.