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“The Black Man’s Burden”: A Response to Kipling

In February 1899, British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands.” In this poem, Kipling urged the U.S. to take up the “burden” of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become vice-president and then president, described it as “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view.” Not everyone was as favorably impressed as Roosevelt. African Americans, among many others, objected to the notion of the “white man’s burden.” Among the dozens of replies to Kipling’s poem was “The Black Man’s Burden,” written by African-American clergyman and editor H. T. Johnson and published in April 1899. A “Black Man’s Burden Association” was even organized with the goal of demonstrating that mistreatment of brown people in the Philippines was an extension of the mistreatment of black Americans at home.

Pile on the Black Man’s Burden.

'Tis nearest at your door;

Why heed long bleeding Cuba,

or dark Hawaii’s shore?

Hail ye your fearless armies,

Which menace feeble folks

Who fight with clubs and arrows

and brook your rifle’s smoke.

Pile on the Black Man’s Burden

His wail with laughter drown

You’ve sealed the Red Man’s problem,

And will take up the Brown,

In vain ye seek to end it,

With bullets, blood or death

Better by far defend it

With honor’s holy breath.

Source: H.T. Johnson, “The Black Man’s Burden,” Voice of Missions, VII (Atlanta: April 1899), 1. Reprinted in Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., Black Americans and the White Man’s Burden, 1898–1903 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1975, 183–184.