In the late 19th century, the ideology of racism and the notion of the white man’s supremacy were commonplace, and among the many people affected by this mindset, was English poet Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was a strong believer of the supremacy of white men and wrote a poem called “the white man’s burden” to advise the United States to colonize the Philippines. Having spent most of his time in colonized India, Kipling saw people of color (both black and brown) as inferior and interacted with them in such a manner that it would be plausible to compare it to the way people treat their pets. Kipling used words such as “captives,” “Half devil and half child” and “White Man’s burden” to emphasize the point that people of color are uncivilized, evil (or have a greater tendency to manifest evil) and it is the White (written with a capital ‘W’) man’s responsibility to civilize these “wild” people and to give them direction.
Kipling uses literary devices such as imagery, analogy, and metaphors. These literary devices, combined with the tone and the compelling diction of the poet, gives the reader a sense of urgency to fulfill the responsibilities and to carry the burden that only they are able to bear. Kipling also addresses the white men who are lacking in their desire to carry this burden and calls them to action by using phrases such as “Have done with childish days” and “Comes now, to search your manhood” to evoke a sense of haste and a feeling of dismay at their current position.
However, Kipling’s advice to colonize the Philippines and to subjugate different nations to forcibly “save” them from their uncivilized practices was not lauded with praise nor appreciated by the people of color, who were the ones that faced the consequences and the hardships of colonization. Hence, due to Kipling’s insensitivity towards the suffering races, and the mention of these people as “child” races enraged the non-white intellectuals to respond to Kipling’s poem. Consequently, a lot of parodies, criticisms, and replies were written to Kipling’s “White man’s burden,” but one of the poems that makes itself prominent from the confusing mess of replies and critiques is the “Black man’s burden” by African-American clergyman and editor H.T Johnson.
In his response to Kipling’s “White man’s burden,” Johnson speaks of the ill-treatment of black people under the rule of white men, and how they are regarded not just as uncivilized people but are sometimes treated like animals. His goal was to demonstrate that the mistreatment of black Americans at home and the abuse of brown people in the Philippines were interlinked with one another. This was so because in both cases the ruling elite was composed of white aristocrats who believed that they are inherently superior and better than people of color. Johnson (being an African-American himself) knows the pain and troubles of people of color under the rule of white men and felt (like many others) that colonization was not an act of mercy, but an act of tyranny, that stripped the people being governed of their culture, tradition, and freedom.
Johnson aims to articulate the agony afflicted on the non-whites by the white supremacists and uses strong words and phrases such as “your fearless armies,” “menace feeble folks,” and “Who fight with clubs and arrows and brook your rifle’s smoke.” These words compel the reader to marvel at the imagery that has been created inside of their minds and, at the same time, makes them feel the suffering of the tormented people facing these complications. Johnson also speaks courageously to the white people, addressing them and blaming them for the hardships that they have caused. He states “Why heed long bleeding Cuba, or dark Hawaii’s shore?” and “You’ve sealed the Red Man’s problem, And will take up the Brown,” to address the violence and bloodshed caused, and the lack of freedom given to the previously colonized nations.
Comparatively, both poets excel in the art of calling people to action by evoking a sense of urgency inside of them. However, Kipling’s poem ends on a more forceful tone than Johnson’s poem. This can be further investigated by looking at the diction used by both poets at the end of their poems. Kipling uses words such as “Through all the thankless years,” and “The judgment of your peers!” to inform the readers of a reward that they can earn if they are to perform this moral obligation. Whereas, Johnson uses words such as “In vain ye seek to end it,” and “Better by far defend it, With honor’s holy breath.” to make his target audience realize that their goal is going to be in vain and that it is not possible for them to exterminate the non-white races. Hence, it is reasonable to say that Kipling’s poem ends on the unwavering note of his call to bear the burden of the white man. Whereas, Johnson ends his poem by providing a solution or the correct method to deal with the races under the rule of white people, by telling the colonizers to “defend” and protect the rights, cultures, and traditions of the people under their rule.