Friday, June 22, 2007

Black Man's Burden

Kipling's poem White Man's Burden and the phrase it develops is now a synonym for racist colonialism. That Kipling at the height of Empire could pen such words to general approbation from his peers now strikes us as an arrogance so high, a hubris so beyond the pale as to be comical.

In the poem, Kipling encourages America to take up the White Man's Burden for the civilizing of the world's others. He cautions that we, like the British, will receive no thanks from those whose lives we improve, but only criticism, yet we are bound by duty to do it anyway.

Except for the whiteness part, Kipling got it right. The racial aspect is unnecessary and perhaps even accidental to the development of the customs and institutions of civilization that have brought rights and freedom to many.

As Western civilization is said to be a combination of the influences of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, it is not difficult to imagine changes in history that led to the great cultural advances occurring on the southern shore of the Mediterranean rather than the north. If those influences had combined in a way similar to what happened in Europe, it might have been the North Africans who carried the burden of improvement of the rest of the world.

Yes, the egalitarianism of the northern European barbarians was also part of the development of the rights of man, and a thousand other adjustments would have to be made to construct an equivalence to Italy in Tunisia, to London in Cairo. But an exact match is not needed so much as the spread of certain ideas to an area - and that might have happened differently than it did.

Read the poem, ignoring what leaps first to the eyes of a 21st C reader. Kipling got it right. I wonder if he and his countrymen had not made the moronic connection of cultural ideas to race that the multiculturalism which is largely a reaction against racism might never have gotten a foothold, to trouble us so in the last decades.

1 comment:

Francis W. Porretto said...

In his day, Kipling was exactly correct. The civilized, rational peoples of the world were white, almost exclusively. Besides, "Civilized Rational Man's Burden" is a lot harder to work into a quatrain.