White Man's Burden

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Thursday, 18 June 2009

(13:53:37 CDT)

White Man's Burden

When I was in high school, our teacher taught Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" (LGT ebooks@adelaide's copy of text) with absolutely, 100% no irony. Maybe that should be absolutely 0% irony. I'm not sure how double negatives work in that case. Anyhow, we were taught the poem in light of the imperialist cause that co-opted the phrase "white man's burden" for its own ideas. The poem was said to mean that us white folk have the burden to enslave and control the lesser (read: brown) folk; and we will die while doing this God given duty, from malaria, from become race traders, and from inhuman living conditions that somehow those brown (read: lesser) folk can handle because they are closer to hell than us God fearers. I mean, if you pretend irony doesn't exist in literature, that is exactly what that poem is saying. We will go over, God help us, and we will die, and that is our burden (we in that sentence refers to me and my fellow nillas).

The thing is, irony does exsit in literature and in good amounts. When a friend recently posted about watching the movie White Man's Burden, I couldn't help but reread the poem that inspired the term. I cannot see how the poem can be read as anything BUT ironic. Either he is saying (the half ironic interpretation) that maybe white folk shouldn't go over to other people's lands because those lands kind of suck and there is no reason for Euros to lose their best and brightest via various hellholes or (the full ironic version) that various Euros are acting like they are going over there out of some spiritual burden are basically just trying to get up in people's faces and they, the Euros, are not fairing well listening to this so-called "burden". My first implication was to take it in the latter, but then I went back and reread and think it is going to be somewhere between half- and full-irony. He points out that "white man's burden" involves holding people captive that do not want to be held captive, that they will judge the white imperialists and their God by their actions, and that they are doing this for "another's profit". I'm kind of sad that my teacher did not point out, even a little, that maybe the poem should not be taken as a call for Europe and America (despite Kipling's Britishness, the poem specifies "The United States and the Philippine Islands") to go out and have a good old time.

For those curious, I have included the poem at full, below:

TAKE up the White Man's burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives' need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

Take up the White Man's Burden—
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another's profit,
And work another's gain.

Take up the White Man's burden—
The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine
And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to nought.

Take up the White Man's burden—
No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper—
The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter,
The roads ye shall not tread,
Go make them with your living,
And mark them with your dead.

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 ye us from bondage,
"Our loved Egyptian night?"

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.

Take up the White Man's burden—
Have done with childish days—
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

Si Vales, Valeo


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Written by Doug Bolden

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