Kipling: As If

The mural on the wall of the student union at the University of Manchester included the poem “If” by beloved British author Rudyard Kipling. The irony is overwhelming.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

So naturally, it had to go.

Students at the University of Manchester painted over a poem by Rudyard Kipling because of what they describe as the British author’s imperialistic and racist writings, replacing it with a poem by the African-American writer Maya Angelou.

The Guardian and other British news sources reported that the students painted over the mural [of] Kipling’s poem “If” — a mural students had not signed off on — on a wall at the newly renovated student union building.

Maya Angelou has written wonderful poems, and she would have been a wonderful choice of poets had they chosen one of her works in the first place. But they didn’t. Instead, Kipling was chosen. The students were not consulted about the choice and chose to vote against it with their paint brushes.

Sara Khan, the student union’s liberation and access officer, posted the following statement on Facebook about the decision to paint over it: “A failure to consult students during the process of adding art to the newly renovated SU building resulted in Rudyard Kipling’s work being painted on the first floor last week.

But as wonderful as Angelou may be, the problem is that Kipling has fallen decidedly out of favor.

“We, as an exec team, believe that Kipling stands for the opposite of liberation, empowerment, and human rights — the things that we, as an SU, stand for. Well-known as author of the racist poem ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ and a plethora of other work that sought to legitimate the British Empire’s presence in India and de-humanize people of color, it is deeply inappropriate to promote the work of Kipling in our SU, which is named after prominent South African anti-Apartheid activist, Steve Biko.”

The contention was that the Student Union belonged to the students, and the “exec team” wasn’t having this racist, this de-humanizer’s poem on their wall. While the poem “If” isn’t racist, and is quite inspirational (not to mention timely), it was Kipling who was so hated that they couldn’t suffer his words in their student union.

Then again, it’s not as if Kipling isn’t a writer of some renown.

“I think the action is a bit of youthful grand-standing,” Andrew Lycett, a Kipling biographer, said via email to Inside Higher Ed. “There is no evidence that the students have read anything that Kipling wrote. They see him as a symbol of ‘imperialism’ and related thinking — notably a lack of enthusiasm for the self-determination of colonized peoples. He was indeed an imperialist; there is no arguing that; it was an essential part of his conservative political credo.

However more importantly he was an imaginative genius, who was responsible for some of the finest writing of his age — from the stories in Plain Tales from the Hills, through poems such as “The Way through the Woods” and children’s favorites such as The Jungle Books, to his great Indian novel Kim. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, his citation referred to his ‘power of observation, originality of imagination, virility of ideas and remarkable talent for narration.’ It is wrong to attempt to erase any written work, and certainly not that of such a creative individual, whose output is on any level better studied — for both its literary and its historical interest — than defaced.”

While the school punted by shrugging off this vandalism, saying it was up to the students to decide for themselves, the dismissal of Kipling as a writer of prominence by simplistically calling him racist, and defacing the work without regard for its content or historical significance, was disconcerting.

“I think that the students have the right to have what they want on their wall,” Jan Montefiore, a professor emerita at the University of Kent and author of a Kipling biography, said in a phone interview. “But on the other hand I think he’s also a very great writer, a very great and complicated writer, so I’m against them dismissing him as a racist full-stop. That’s not at all the whole story.”

For the students, however, that was the whole story, or as much of the story as they felt compelled to skim.

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings — nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run —
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

If only.

33 thoughts on “Kipling: As If

  1. the other rob

    So, the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger is still wabbling back to the Fire, then?

    PS: Welcome back, math captcha.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t want to hear any more complaining about the math captcha. But I will. Glad you like the change.

  2. kemn

    I can’t even.

    I understand the distaste for people due to their views, but to taint a poem because you don’t like the author?

    What next? Saying that because Newton was a cisgender white male, the law of gravity doesn’t exist?

    (and welcome back to the math captcha that I’ve managed to fail three times this morning. I need more caffeine – and apparently i take too long to write my posts and the captcha changes in the background)

    1. Hunting Guy

      Robert Heinlein

      “Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best, he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear his shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.”

    1. KP

      I read that as “real beer review’ until it sunk in..

      Then I had to comment just to try the maths captcha! Sooo much better than picking unrecognizable pictures!

  3. B. McLeod

    Two layers of art here, which were Kipling’s verse and the work of the visual artist. This vandalism was more a suppression of the hapless visual artist than of Kipling’s verse (which will continue to echo through the generations). The artist had to be punished, and the work destroyed, for favorably depicting words linked to Kipling (never mind the message). Had the Library of Alexandria not already been burned, these yahoos could be counted on to burn it.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re right, the visual artist’s expression was also destroyed. But they were complicit, so they deserved it.

  4. Jay

    Millennial minor league baseball exec makes Millennial Night, of course, Millennials are outraged. Oh the humanity. No links, but they were selling avocado toast, napping and selfie stations, and of course, participation ribbons.

  5. Richard Kopf

    A poetic response to the kids from Manchester and everywhere else:

    “Have you seen the troubled youth these days?
    They’re not very troubled at all.
    They create their own illness then spread it amongst the masses of degenerates.
    The symptoms consist of debauchery and disrespect.
    They yell to the crowd, “Look at me for I am broken.”
    No. You are fixed…fixed onto the idea that one must be troubled to be different.”

    Beaux, found on Hello Poetry

    All the best.


  6. WFG

    If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
    Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
    Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
    Or lesser breeds without the Law—
    Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
    Lest we forget—lest we forget!

  7. Black Bellamy

    Yeah, you’ll be a Man, my son, indeed. Now, I think it’s a little early to start imposing roles on it, don’t you? So in addition to being a flaming racist, Kipling was also a damned transphobe. I’m off to bulldoze his gravesite.

  8. Guy Hamilton-Smith

    Well, shit. ‘If’ is an amazing poem. I have it hanging on my wall. I guess if people who are problematic can’t create beautiful things, none of us should bother trying, seeing as how we’re all broken in our own way.

    1. SHG Post author

      The first two lines cover a lot of ground.

      If you can keep your head when all about you
      Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

      And it you can’t, you paint over it to prove your virtue and outrage.

  9. jack p

    I had that poem on a poster on my wall when I was a student. These self-righteous wanna-be radicals have no interest in making a statement about Kipling, who was every bit as complex as any other human being in history. They don’t understand the history and they don’t care. They display their puritanical credentials with these public displays of iconoclasm. Its an ego trip for egotists. I don’t care if they’re on the left or the right, people like this are just ass-hats.

  10. LTMG

    Q: Do you like Kipling?

    A: I don’t know. I’ve never kipled.

    Not my joke, but occasionally worth repeating.

  11. Keith Lynch

    Someone should tell them about Leslie Fish, a musician who has set
    Kipling’s poems to music. She is well to the left of Lenin. She’s a
    member of IWW. (Yes, the Wobblies are still around. They even have
    their own website.) If she thinks Kipling is acceptable….

    1. SHG Post author

      Problematic is decided on a minute by minute basis. What was acceptable last week, even yesterday, may no longer be acceptable today. Even to a wobbly.

  12. LarryArnold

    Kipling wrote about the “White Man’s Burden,” and therefore must be painted over.
    If he had just called it the “White Man’s Privilege” they’d be painting over someone else’s work to post his.

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