Debate over U.S. imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century occurred not only in newspapers and political speeches, but in poetry as well. In 1899, the British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden,” which 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, copied the poem and sent it to his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting that it was “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view.” Other authors, by contrast, wrote parodies and critiques of Kipling’s poem and the imperial ideology it espoused. “The Black Man’s Burden” and “The Poor Man’s Burden,” by H.T. Johnson and George McNeil, respectively, were two such parodies.
Goal: To examine differing perspectives on imperialism at the turn of the century; to understand the use of poetry as a vehicle for expression, protest, and political satire.
Themes: Links between racial ideology and imperialism; anti-imperial protest; class conflict.
Skills: Poetry analysis; using literature to understand history; poetry writing.
Resources: “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands,” by Rudyard Kipling; “The Black Man’s Burden,” by H.T. Johnson; and “The Poor Man’s Burden,” by George McNeil. The three poems and accompanying commentary are available on the Web site Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898–1935 (http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/index.html) by Jim Zwick, and in the Many Pasts section of History Matters: The U.S. Survey on the Web (http://historymatters.gmu.edu).
Step 1: Reading Poetry
Go to “‘The White Man’s Burden’ and Its Critics” and read the introductory text. (http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/kipling/index.html#smith), part of Anti-Imperialism in the United States, 1898–1935 (http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/index.html)
Next, read the following poems:
1. Rudyard Kipling, "The White Man’s Burden" (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5478/)
2. George McNeill, "The Poor Man’s Burden" (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5475/)
3. H.T. Johnson, "The Black Man’s Burden" (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5476/)
4. One more of your choice from the list of Responses at “‘The White Man’s Burden’ and Its Critics” (http://www.boondocksnet.com/ai/kipling/index.html#smith)
Step 2: Answering Questions About the Poems
As you read, answer the following questions to guide your understanding of the poems.
1. According to Kipling, and in your own words, what was the “White Man’s Burden”?
2. What reward did Kipling suggest the “White Man” gets for carrying his “burden”?
3. Who did Kipling think would read his poem? What do you think that this audience might have said in response to it?
4. For what audiences do you think H.T. Johnson and George McNeil wrote their poems? How do you think those audiences might have responded to “The Black Man’s Burden” and “The Poor Man’s Burden”?
Step 3: Small Group Discussion
Share and discuss the poems and your answers to the questions with a partner or other members of a small group.
Step 4: Writing “Found Poetry”
Working individually or in pairs, list any key words and phrases that stand out to you in each poem. Make a separate list for each poem.
Create a “found” poem — a poem that incorporates some of the chosen key words or phrases with your own words. The poem should convey your views or ideas about imperialism.
Step 5: Group Discussion
Read the “found” poems with partners or group members and discuss what statements they make about imperialism. If you worked individually, how many of the chosen key words and phrases were the same, and how many were different? How did different people use the same words/phrases? What types of responses do you think your poems would have generated if written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries?