Student leaders at Manchester University declared that Kipling “stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment, and human rights”.
The poem, which had been painted on the wall of the students’ union building by an artist, was removed by students on Tuesday, in a bid to “reclaim” history on behalf of those who have been “oppressed” by “the likes of Kipling”.
In lieu of Kipling’s If, students used a black marker pen to write out the poem Still I Rise by Maya Angelou on the same stretch of wall.
There’s a word for this: vandalism.
I am not a good judge of poetry, and in general, I think most people are no longer interested in poetry one way or another, so I am not going to judge the poems on their relative merits. I think a reasonable person could like either one. (Note: I have have in the past compared Shakespeare and Audre Lorde.)
Short excerpts from the relevant poems:
If you can keep your head when all about youAre losing theirs and blaming it on you,If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,But make allowance for their doubting too;If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;If you can meet with Triumph and DisasterAnd treat those two impostors just the same;If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spokenTwisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools: …
Angelou’s Still I Rise:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise. …
Neither of these poems is a clear winner on merit, but they weren’t chosen on merit. Kipling’s poem was chosen to decorate the student center at a British university because Kipling is one of Britain’s most beloved and respected writers and this particular poem was voted one of Britain’s very favorites. Further, it contains practical life advice of the sort you normally aim at students.
Maya Angelou, by contrast, isn’t British. She’s an American.
According to Sara Khan, “Liberation & Access Officer” of the Manchester Student Union, majoring in English:
We, as an exec team, believe that Kipling stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment, and human rights…
Well-known as author of the racist poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’, and a plethora of other work that sought to legitimate the British Empire’s presence in India and de-humanise people of colour, it is deeply inappropriate to promote the work of Kipling in our SU …
As a statement on the reclamation of history by those who have been oppressed by the likes of Kipling for so many centuries, and continue to be to this day, we replaced his words with those of the legendary Maya Angelou, a black female poet and civil rights activist.”
It takes some special variety of gall to major in English at a British university and then complain about reading one of Britain’s most famous poets–and a great deal of stupidity to put up with it.
Angelou’s words were written in a specifically American context, responding to the way she and other African Americans were treated here in the US. Her poem has nothing to do with Kipling or things Kipling or other Brits have done. It was selected in this perverted sense that all whites are equivalent and interchangeable, as are all non-whites. Any non-white poet will do for replacing white poets.
Maya Angelou’s poem was not selected to replace Kipling’s because the students think it is better on technical, poetic grounds, nor because it reflects an important part of British literature, but for its subject and the author’s identity: a black woman. The message is not, “Here’s a lovely poem; we think students will enjoy it.” The message is, “Fuck you to Kipling and everyone who loves him; we are wiping you off the walls, removing you from our spaces, and replacing you with our own poem about how we are rising up against you.”
Incidentally, for an “English major,” Sara is oddly ignorant of the fact that Kipling’s poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” was not written to justify British colonialism in India. (I guess she is not a very good English major.) It was actually written to encourage the US to colonize the Philippines.
Kipling also seems to have been ambivalent about the whole endeavor:
Take up the White Man’s burden —
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard —
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light: —
“Why brought he us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?”