To Be Conscious of Colonialism
Words: Stephanie Dando
Students at the University of Manchester have become the subject of controversy after defacing a mural of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’, painted on the wall of a newly renovated student union, and replacing it with Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’. The students responsible for the incident justify their actions by arguing that Kipling - a well-established racist imperialist - does not represent the voices of black and brown students. Manchester University’s SU has apologised for not consulting students before erecting the poem.
Kipling is perhaps known best as the author of ‘The Jungle Book’, but he was also a prolific poet, and it is perhaps his poetry that best defines the views that make him such a controversial figure today. In ‘The White Man’s Burden’, Kipling urges the United States to colonise the Philippines during the Philippine-American War, referring to the Filipino people as ‘sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child’; the white man’s ‘burden’ is that he is morally obliged to take over non-white countries in order that they are able to economically and socially prosper.
Many have taken issue with the actions of Manchester University students, with Jan Montefiore, an English professor at the University of Kent, calling it ‘simplistic’ to dismiss Kipling as a racist. But Montefiore makes it sound as though nuance supplants racism, or at the very least excuses it. Kipling was more than his destructive beliefs, but those beliefs were the vehicle upon which colonialism sat and was allowed to run on. When you fast forward to today’s society, where non-white folk’s voices are still understood through the prism of whiteness, it is not ‘simplistic’ to understand Kipling as a racist; it merely acknowledges that Kipling was part of a wider issue, an antecedent to today’s ‘post’-colonialist world.
More importantly, however, Kipling isn’t being dismissed. We all love ‘The Jungle Book’, and we can all appreciate the poem that UoM students erased. While 'If' itself possesses a richness and subtle melancholy that can only be gauged upon reading it for yourself, at its core it's a poem about what it takes to be a man; it thus has considerable applicability to the walls of a university, an institution that represents that transitory stage between youth to adulthood. But, universities are harbingers of knowledge, reflection, and education, and when we make an emblem out of Kipling by erecting a mural in his name, at best we ignore the educational lessons of the past, namely that imperialism quite literally fractures cultures and fractures people, and at worst we say ‘none of that matters, because he wrote a good poem’. Additionally, POC at the University of Manchester pay for their educations just like everybody else, and they deserve to feel equally represented in an institution that purports to be at the forefront of inclusivism and progressivism. Not to mention that this could all have been avoided if UoM’s student union, which is supposed to operate democratically, released a survey or poll asking for students’ opinions on a selection of potential poems.
But also — can we stop pretending that what the University of Manchester students did was that flagrant? There was no enormous, staged protest, no decries of ‘how could you, UoM student union?’ There was no violence, no hostility, no expression of entitlement. They didn’t even demand the UoM student union, to whom they pay upwards of £9k a year, do a professional do-over of the Kipling poem. Instead, they took matters into their own hands, not merely painting over the poem, but replacing it with one that, unlike ‘If’, applies to any and all peoples, ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou, a famous civil rights activist, and a (now past) reminder that adversity, even at its most execrable, can be overcome. UoM students handled the Kipling affair in, arguably, the best way possible, so when you contest their peaceful actions, you contest the notion of change itself. As can be seen in the picture, a silhouette of what was once Kipling’s poem stands beneath the current feature of Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’, and maybe we can draw meaning from that: just like a shadow or undercurrent, the effects of the imperialism Kipling vied for can still be seen in the world today, but Angelou’s poem is a demonstration of how we choose, consciously, purposefully, to move forward.
You can follow Stephanie Dando on Twitter @Dando_Stephanie