Friday, February 22, 2013

The White Man's Burden

Behind the Disney tale of Mowgli, Bagheera, and Baloo, is the greatly criticized imperialistic undertone of Rudyard Kipling’s original story. The subtle innuendo within The Jungle Book was much more clearly stated in his poem “The White Man’s Burden.” In Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, this poem is used as a forward to the chapter “Down at the Cross.”

Take up the White Man's burden --

Ye dare not stoop to less --

Nor call too loud on freedom

To cloak your weariness;

By all ye cry or whisper,

By all ye leave or do,

The silent, sullen peoples

Shall weigh your Gods and you.   

This poem in its entirety can be found at

Published in 1899, “The White Man’s Burden” urged the US to take up the “burden” of colonization, following in the footsteps of Britain and other European nations. Its publication coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and was sent to Roosevelt who believed it was “poor poetry, but that it made good sense from the expansion standpoint” (Brantlinger). Understanding the meaning of this poem and Kipling’s implications forces the reader to question Baldwin’s use of it in The Fire Next Time. 
            The notion of the white man’s “burden” of the unindustrialized world was clearly associated with race. Kipling’s poem describes imperialism as the need to spread the “better” way of life. In the forth stanza he instructs the US to follow the ways of Britain by starting war in order to gain territory: “The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread / Go mark them with your living, Go mark them with your dead.” The poem stresses a very Eurocentric view of the world in which those non-European nations are seen as feeble and barbaric and in need of westernization. The main point of “The White Man’s Burden” is that the rich nations have an obligation to help the poor ones, and whether they want it or not it is for the betterment of the world.
            In the stanza that Baldwin chooses to use as a forward to “Down at the Cross” Kipling warns “the white man” to be strong in the fight for imperialism and “Ye dare not stoop to less.” He warns “The silent, sullen peoples,” non-whites, “Shall weigh your gods and you,” will try to resist and judge the attempts to imperialize. In “Down at the Cross,” Baldwin stresses the notion that no matter what race or religion all people should be treated equally. He expresses his belief that racism stems from the insecurities of white men, who turned to imperialism and segregation as an outlet for their own feelings of powerlessness.
            In juxtaposing Kipling’s strong assertions within “The White Man’s Burden” to Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, one must question how one aids in understanding the other. To me, this poem was a poignant opening for a powerful chapter- what affect did this poem have on your reading of “Down at the Cross?”  

1 comment:

  1. Molly,
    Fantastic analysis of the historical context of these poems. The idea of 'The White Man's Burden' is often seen by historians as having been wrapped in a European fantasy of their superiority to other cultures while at the same time used as a means to mask their own societal failures. I once came across an advertisement from the late 19th century that was meant to sell soap to traders bound for Japan. The basic idea of the advertisement was that by selling soap to the Japanese, one would be helping to fulfill "The White Man's Burden' by helping to 'Clean the People of the East'. The irony of this is that the average city in Europe in the 19th century would have been truly disgusting while in Japan cleanliness had long been considered a virtue. This is just one example of how this notion of "The White Man's Burden" was simply not in touch with reality.


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