"The White Man's Burden" had nothing to do with Africa -- not in the beginning, at least. It was about colonialism, war, high ideals, and vulgar racism in southeast Asia.
Rudyard Kipling addressed his best known poem to Americans. It first appeared in February 1899, less than a year after the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, and as the nation was deciding what to do with the Philippine Islands, which it had seized along with Puerto Rico, Guam, and other bits and pieces of the Spanish empire.
A local independence movement had nearly liberated the islands from Spain before the American forces even arrived on the scene. But imperialists, led by President William McKinley and his administration (including Vice President Theodore Roosevelt), wanted to crush the movement and colonize the Philippines. The imperialists didn't speak for all Americans. There was a considerable number of anti-imperialists -- senators, congressmen, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, and many ordinary people -- who thought that empire-building was a thoroughly bad idea.
Udo J. Keppler, "From the Cape to Cairo," Puck Magazine, 10 December 1902. ( [All prints are via the Library of Congress. Click on any image to see a larger version.] Many people in Great Britain, including Kipling, dreamed of building an African empire that would stretch unbroken from Cape Town, in South Africa, to Cairo. It almost happened. This cartoon, from the American magazine Puck, expresses a certain amount of anti-imperialist skepticism. Those fighting and killing under the banner of "Civilization" are distinguished from those fighting under the banner of "Barbarism" only by their superior weapons and the color of their skin.)
"The White Man's Burden" was propaganda designed to defeat the anti-imperialists. Kipling believed that no task was more noble than that of spreading Anglo-Saxon civilization by colonizing the black and brown peoples of the world. The poem urged doubtful Americans to join his own nation, Britain, in the cause of civilizing their "new-caught, sullen peoples." (The poem's half-remembered subtitle makes Kipling's agenda clear -- "The United States and the Philippine Islands.")
Obviously, the poem has long outlived its immediate purpose and still resonates loudly in the world that we see around us, today. In fact, it's on my mind precisely because of the way that it's been invoked by critics of the NGO Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign. I don't think that's a cheap shot to say that Kony 2012 updates "The White Man's Burden" for the twenty-first century. But I do think that some nuance is required.
Before I go any further, it's important to note that while "The White Man's Burden" is overtly racist the Invisible Children campaign is not. On the other hand, if we understand how the poem exerted its power over its readers, we'll gain some insight into the appeal of Kony 2012.
The cover of Meg Wesling's Empire's Proxy: American Literature and U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines is illustrated by a 1902 cartoon which depicts Uncle Sam as a school marm and Philippine independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo as Topsy, a character in Harriet Beecher Stow's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The pro-imperialist cartoon above so perfectly illustrates Kipling's view of colonized people -- "Half-devil and half-child" -- that the artist must have known the poem. In it, Emilio Aguinaldo, one of the most important leaders of the Philippine independence movement, has been transformed into Topsy, the wild and undisciplined African-American slave girl in Uncle Tom's Cabin. That is, he's been infantilized, nigger-ized, and castrated.
Uncle Sam has been emasculated, as well. In the cartoon, he's a school marm, seemingly unsure about how to go about the business of civilizing Topsy. This is also a reference to the novel, in which Topsy is eventually redeemed by the love and affection of a good white woman. Redemption from savagery can also be the fate of the Philippines, the cartoonist wants us to see, if it accepts the benevolent guidance of Auntie Sam.
In his poem, Kipling signals the racial inferiority of colonized people in a variety of ways that go beyond "half-devil, half-child." They are "fluttered," "wild," "sullen," and capable of little more than "sloth and heathen Folly."
J. S. Pughe, "The Flag Must Stay Put," Puck Magazine, 4 June 1902.
"The White Man's Burden" is more than a racist screed, however. It wouldn't have appealed so much to Americans, in 1899, and it wouldn't resonate so strongly, today, if it were simply an ode to white supremacy. A much more important part of its attractiveness is the way it appealed to Americans' highest ideals and summoned them to join a transcendent cause.
S. D. Ehrhart, "If They'll Only be Good," Puck Magazine, 31 January 1900. (In this cartoon, school teachers arrive, bringing the blessing of American civilization, as American soldiers depart. In fact, the United States did build many schools, which educated Filipino children as the same time that they spread American values.)
Kipling casts colonialism as an altruistic enterprise, devoid of self-interest. Its purpose is "To seek another's profit/And work another's gain." There is no hint in the poem of the great power rivalries, national pride, and greed that were the most powerful engines of colonialism, in the Philippines as much as anywhere else. Instead the poem flatters its readers, telling them that the white man's task is to "Fill full the mouth of Famine/And bid the sickness cease."
Colonialism, as Kipling describes it, is truly a burden. It requires both hard work and sacrifice, from individuals and from the nation as a whole. If Americans accept the call, Kipling tells them that they must "Send forth the best ye breed." When he urges them to "Bind your sons to exile," it's both an exhortation and a warning. There they will "wait in heavy harness" to "serve your captives' need." Americans can expect no gratitude for their efforts and sacrifice, Kipling says -- nothing more than "The blame of those ye better/The hate of those ye guard."
It's a vision of altruism and sacrifice, a secular riff on familiar Christian themes. And it was, and is, powerfully attractive. Who doesn't want to be told that their motives are pure and that their actions are wholly good?
(It's hard not to see in this an unintentionally and tragically ironic anticipation of David Halberstam's "the best and the brightest." and America's recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Kipling was far from the only one using this sort of rhetoric. In his "Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation" of 21 December 1898, in which he addressed America's new colonial subjects, President McKinley spoke of the nation's "high mission" and its determination to bestow "the blessings of good and stable government upon the people of the Philippine Islands under the free flag of the United States." It was America's "earnest wish and paramount aim," he said
to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines by assuring them in every possible way that full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of free peoples, and by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary [Spanish] rule.
J. S. Pughe, "What Would Lincoln Do," Puck Magazine, 28 September 1904.
There's no doubt that the influence of American school teachers, administrators, missionaries, and businessmen in the Philippines did some good. But there's also no doubt that Filipinos got the worst of the deal. Fine words couldn't mask an ugly reality. The war in which the United States crushed the Philippine independence movement was brutal. After their defeat, the Filipino people deeply resented American occupation.
Anti-imperialist sentiment in the United States didn't die quickly. In the cartoon above, Theodore Roosevelt, who had become president after McKinley's assassination, in 1901, finds himself tormented by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, whose presence reminds him that however much he wants to hold on to the Philippines (and thereby aggrandize himself) America can only be true to itself by letting it go. (In the cartoon, America's troubles in Panama are also on Roosevelt's mind.)
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What does all of this have to do with Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign?
First of all, it's important to know that the meaning of "White Man's Burden" for the general public in the West was almost immediately expanded beyond the Philippines into the rest of the Asia, Africa, and Latin America, as Kipling had intended. He wanted whites to understand that the poem had universal implications.
Second, like many other commentators, I have a hard time understanding why IC is pursuing this issue now. While Joseph Kony has been responsible for gruesome atrocities, the threat that he poses has radically diminished over the last several years. Containing Kony has been the work, first and foremost, of Africans. In addition, the people of Uganda, where Kony comitted most of his crimes, have more pressing issues to deal with, today and tomorrow.
More importantly, I've been concerned with the ways in which the Invisible Children campaign, and especially its viral video, reproduce many of the stereotypes about black and brown people which Kipling exploited so effectively in his poem.
Kipling's Filipino are either childlike creatures who lack the capacity to pull themselves out of the darkness of barbarism or devils who inflict terror on their own peoples.
In the video, Africans (many of the ones that we see are children) are victims who cannot help themselves or Joseph Kony and his minions who commit unspeakable atrocities. (Other kinds of Africans do appear in the video, but in terms of numbers, screen time, and impact, they are overwhelmed by stereotyped images of perpetrator and victim.)
The video, just like the poem, flatters its audience, telling them that with pure hearts and blameless motives they can "make a difference" and bring salvation to people who cannot help themselves. Race matters, of course. Young white men are the public face of Invisible Children. In the video, multitudes of other whites -- mostly young men and women of the Facebook generation -- are enlisted in the cause. The video tells them that they (and the American government, with its invincible military technology) solve the problem of Joseph Kony.
I'm far from the only person to hear echoes of "The White Man's Burden" in the Kony 2012 campaign. Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, Christian Caryl acknowledges that "the sad fact of the matter is that we in the West... still prefer to imagine Africans primarily as victims and ourselves as their redeemers." The success of Invisible Children's video is due, in part, to the fact that young white people get far more screen time than Africans. People, he says, "would much rather identify with the heroic crusader than the evildoer's depressing victims." (Caryl goes on to discuss a number of African success stories, including Uganda's success in marginalizing Kony. You can read the whole article, here.)
Finally, what about the people who answered Kipling's call and responded to Invisible Children's message? The American school teachers who flocked to the Philippines and the college students who desperately want to do something to bring Kony to justice -- are they bad people?
Of course not. For me, one of the saddest things about the American experience in the Philippines and (on a much smaller scale and in a very different way) the success of the Kony campaign is the way that good intentions went wrong. The impulse behind the desire to do good things for other people is one that ought to be applauded, cherished, and cultivated. (Solome Lemma has some wonderful thoughts along these lines about the response to Kony 2012. You an read them, here.)
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Note: This post is an extended footnote to a piece that I recently wrote about the ways in which Africans have been stereotyped as helpless victims and as perpetrators of unspeakable evil. You can read it, here.