Kipling proves hard to swallow: The ifs and buts of Kipling

This summer, students at the University of Manchester painted over a mural of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ and replaced it with Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’. They argued that Kipling’s poetry ‘de-humanises people of colour’. Cue angry talk-show phone-ins, English Literature professors being quoted in the Guardian and, according to some, an assault on ‘free speech’.

Of course, ‘If’ has a less explicitly imperial message than some of Kipling’s other work, like the poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ which urged the US to enact colonial control over the Philippines. However, the poem still incorporates Kipling’s support of imperialism. As journalist Stephen Bush points out, it ‘was inspired by the actions of Leander Starr Jameson against the South African Republic.’ Jameson’s actions helped to bring on the Second Boer War, and with it the path to apartheid in South Africa.

Understandably, students questioned the appearance of the mural in their Students’ Union. Indeed, Kipling seems a particularly odd source of interior design inspiration in a building named after Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist. In fact, unlike the poem which appeared without consultation, students voted to name their union building after Biko to express their solidarity with his opposition to apartheid.

Image courtesy of the BBC

So, Maya Angelou seems a fitting replacement for Kipling. Angelou is a poet and civil rights campaigner whose poetry complements the black activism that Steve Biko’s name espouses. Indeed, the opening lines of her poem ‘Still I Rise’ seem to be in discourse with Kipling’s legacy: ‘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.’ In many ways, Angelou provides an antidote to Kipling’s tales of savage natives, jingoism and state-sponsored violence.

Yet this substitution was met with uproar. Needless to say, the exaggerated, knee-jerk reaction came not from students, but from media outlets looking to induce outrage. In response, Facebook commentators scrambled to denounce the students’ actions as ‘whitewashing’ and compare it to the ‘burning of the books’. They seemed almost comically unaware of the irony of apparently ‘whitewashing’ Kipling, the sweetheart of the white establishment, let alone likening it to burning books written by an oppressed minority. Copious abusive comments were posted on the Facebook pages of the women of colour who repainted the mural. These objections weren’t based on knowledge of Kipling’s work, but the impudence of the students and their discordance with their critics’ definition of patriotism.

‘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.’

This is an all too familiar pattern: a small group of female activists dare to question the omnipotence of their universities and were met with screeching abuse from white middle-aged commentators who claim to represent the nation. Yet, it’s the students who are accused of endangering free speech, not those who seek to censor them with threats and fury.

While debates about Cecil Rhodes’ statue at Oriel College, Oxford and the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol have made headlines in recent years, this debate is different. Although it seems to appeal to people enraged by the easy metaphors of ‘painting over’ or ‘removing’ history, the students in Manchester had no such aim in mind. Instead, this dispute is about whose words we, as students, readers and consumers, choose to adorn our walls with.

No one is suggesting that Kipling should no longer be read. In fact, the University of Manchester runs an English Literature module entitled ‘Kipling, Forster and India’. Literature that contains remnants of misguided colonialism should still be discussed and reflected on, just not emblazoned on walls or immortalised in bronze. And when people do decide to use poetry as decoration, they should consider their intended readers. If they don’t, they can hardly blame those who decide to write back.


Phoebe Thompson

Image courtesy of the Evening Standard