Students at the University of Manchester have painted over a mural of a poem by Rudyard Kipling, arguing that the writer “dehumanised people of colour”.
The poem If, which was written around 1895, had been painted on the wall of the university’s newly refurbished students’ union. But students painted over the verses, replacing them with the 1978 poem Still I Rise by theUS poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou.
In a statement on Facebook, Sara Khan, the union’s liberation and access officer, said students had not been consulted about the art that would decorate the union building.
“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,” she said.
“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 dehumanise people of colour, 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.”
Rudyard Kipling and Maya Angelou. Photograph: The Guardian
Kipling, born in Mumbai in 1865, was the first English-language writer to be awarded the Nobel prize in literature, in 1907, and he remains its youngest recipient to date.
His works have long been criticised for their colonialist sympathies, with George Orwell writing in 1942 that Kipling was a “jingo imperialist” and “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting”.
The White Man’s Burden, written in 1899 during the Philippine–American war, encourages the US to assume colonial control of the country.
Khan said the decision to paint over the mural was “a statement on the reclamation of history by those who have been oppressed by the likes of Kipling for so many centuries, and continue to be to this day”.
A spokesman for the union apologised for not considering student opinion before commissioning the mural. “We understand that we made a mistake in our approach to a recent piece of artwork by failing to garner student opinion at the start of a new project. We accept that the result was inappropriate and for that we apologise,” he said.
If is one of Kipling’s most well-known works. Two lines from the poem (“If you can meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same”) are written on the wall of the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
Janet Montefiore, a professor emeritus at the University of Kent and editor of the Kipling Journal, said the students should have been consulted about the mural as it was “their wall” but that the decision to paint over the poem was “a bit OTT”.
“Of course he was a racist. Of course he was an imperialist, but that’s not all he was and it seems to me a pity to say so,” she said. Montefiore argued that Kipling was “a magical storyteller” and that his perspective was part of history. “You don’t want to pretend that it all didn’t happen,” she said.
“Dickens said dreadful things about black people in the Jamaica rebellion. Does that mean you don’t read Dickens?”
She added: “If is not a racist poem. It’s a poem of good advice. I don’t personally like (the poem) but it has meant a great deal to a lot of people.” Montefiore invited Khan to write a piece for the Kipling Journal, setting out her opposition to the writer.
Amit Chaudhuri, author and professor of contemporary literature at the University of East Anglia, said Kipling was “a compelling and very, very gifted writer” who “clearly had racist prejudices”.
He said Kipling wrote about India in a language that was “very interesting, rather than merely exotic”.
“What in a lesser writer would have been predictable is in him very unpredictable and alive,” said Chaudhuri. “There are great blind spots in Kipling and the blind spots are all the more curious and regrettable because they occur in a writer who was extraordinarily observant and acute in his observations.”
Chaudhuri added: “There may be a case for rethinking our relationship to writers and whether writers are ever perfect but also for rethinking our own desire to for them to be perfect.”
There have been similar protests at other UK universities. In 2015 students at the University of Oxford mounted a campaign to remove a statue of the 19th-century mining magnate and imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Last year students in Bristol started a campaign to rename the Wills Memorial building. Henry Overton Wills III was from a tobacco family who profited from slavery.
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