Shadowing the White Man's Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line

Shadowing the White Man's Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line

Shadowing the White Man's Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line

Shadowing the White Man's Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line

Synopsis

During the height of 19th century imperialism, Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem "The White Man's Burden." While some of his American readers argued that the poem served as justification for imperialist practices, others saw Kipling's satirical talents at work and read it as condemnation. Gretchen Murphy explores this tension embedded in the notion of the white man's burden to create a new historical frame for understanding race and literature in America.

Shadowing the White Man's Burden maintains that literature symptomized and channeled anxiety about the racial components of the U.S. world mission, while also providing a potentially powerful medium for multiethnic authors interested in redrawing global color lines. Through a range of archival materials from literary reviews to diplomatic records to ethnological treatises, Murphy identifies a common theme in the writings of African-, Asian- and Native-American authors who exploited anxiety about race and national identity through narratives about a multiracial U.S. empire. Shadowing the White Man's Burden situates American literature in the context of broader race relations, and provides a compelling analysis of the way in which literature came to define and shape racial attitudes for the next century.

Excerpt

In a 1901 essay for the Overland Monthly titled “Red, Black and Yellow,” John T. Bramhall noted a timely coincidence marking the 1899 publication of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Originally subtitled “The United States and the Philippines” and published in a popular U.S. magazine, Kipling’s poem urged Americans to take up the burden of joining Europe in what the poem represents as the thankless task of colonial administration. But for Bramhall, the poem spoke to more than just the question of overseas expansion; it was also a statement about U.S. race relations. Bramhall rhetorically asks, “When Rudyard Kipling wrote ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ was it a coincidence that the Americans were just going into the Philippines, and that we were confronted at the same time with the necessity of furnishing employment to our red men, and of solving the negro problem in the South?” For Bramhall, the simultaneity of these two moments—of becoming a “world power” and at the same time having to work out new political and social relationships among white, African, and Native Americans—prompted a new application of Kipling’s poem. As Bramhill explains, if “the white man’s burden is his dark-skinned brother,” that duty takes on a different form in the multiracial United States than it would in Kipling’s England.

Bramhall’s comment about interpreting Kipling in the United States introduces a cultural phenomenon that I set out to explore in this book: the ways in which U.S. Americans reexamined domestic racial conflicts in light of a newly perceived global mission of overseas commercial, military, and cultural expansion at the turn of the twentieth century. If empire was viewed as a “white man’s burden,” or more generally justified with reference to notions of racial inferiority or superiority, then what role should the “the red, black, and yellow” peoples inhabiting the United States play . . .

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