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!