Black critiques matter

Criticism of the slave trade from 200 years ago speaks to us today—and not just about race.

Because of Hollywood, Rudyard Kipling is best remembered for his collection of short stories The Jungle Book. When we think of Kipling, if we consider him at all, we usually draw to mind cute or harrowing adventures of children and animals.

For Anglo-American history, however, Kipling is better recalled as the author of “The White Man’s Burden,” a poignant poem from the late 1890s. Addressed to white Americans at the birth of their overseas empire during the Spanish-American War of 1898, this poem offers perspective from British experiences. “Take up the White Man’s burden,” the poem begins, “Send forth the best ye breed— / Go, bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need.” The poem then describes colonized peoples as “half devil and half child.” For Americans like Theodore Roosevelt, the poem inspired imperialism, which it appeared to wrap in sacrificial effort.

What Roosevelt and many others missed was Kipling’s warning. Empire meant responsibility and work, but it also meant judgment. “By all ye will or whisper,” Kipling counseled, “By all ye leave or do, / The silent sullen peoples / Shall weigh your God and you.”