Modern Times; Don't decry Manchester students' Actions
This week we saw a widely reported news story in the UK about students at Manchester University who defaced a mural on their campus displaying Rudyard Kipling’s The White Man’s Burden. The poem, they said, was utterly unacceptable and Kipling was a racist. It got me thinking, not about whether or not Kipling was a racist, but about the extensive media use of the word “deface” in relation to this story. Not every media outlet fell prey to this lazy stereotyping in their reporting, but the main offenders include BBC News and even the letters pages at The Guardian.
The myriad of dictionary definitions available to the internet peruser differ slightly in their efforts to help us understand the precise meaning of the word, but each contains a negative undertone such as “spoil”, “damage”, “mar” or “disfigure”, and speaking personally I’m not convinced that this accurately described what happened. The students didn’t spray paint the mural with offensive slogans, neither did they smash it to bits with sledge hammers or even pelt it with rotten fruit. What they did seemed to me, if reports are to be believed, to be an entirely well-considered, peaceful and professional piece of urban-upgrading in the name of contemporary protest.
Why then, did significant sections of the UK media report their actions using confrontational language implying some degree of bad behaviour and negative outcome? Should we as a society morally condemn a peaceful student protest of direct action where there was no shred of peril and no hint of a victim? It is hardly a revolutionary idea for students to take direct action over something about which one of their representative bodies feels strongly, indeed many people may applaud students rediscovering a collective courage to take a stand in a world where any kind of alternative viewpoint invites prohibitively strong and personal mass chastisement in our panderingly-accessible controlled popular culture.
So, let’s not get drawn into the Rudyard Kipling argument here, as that is not the point I am endeavouring to make. I simply say that the students concerned didn’t deface the mural at all, their actions were swift, appropriate and cheeky, and I say hats off to them.
The poem the students installed over the Kipling classic from 1899:
Still I Rise
BY MAYA ANGELOU
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Picture: Poetry Foundation