Modern Times; Don't decry Manchester students' Actions

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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


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

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.


Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Picture: Poetry Foundation


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jennifer Malden

Thu 26th Jul 2018 15:18

If you have ever read KIM you can be in no doubt that Kipling had an immense love of and respect for, the people of India. It is evident on every page. Was he really a wicked colonialist - White Man's Burden- etc or did he subscribe to the prevailing rapacious Victorian mentality, in order to be successful?

I do agree that that poem is not the best choice perhaps for a display at M. University in our times. The West is still just as rapacious, but now we disguise it.

Jennifer Malden

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Stu Buck

Sun 22nd Jul 2018 15:30

take away art because of someones actions and you would lose a lot of beauty.

both poems are wonderful and a part of history. manchester uni is huge. why not display both?

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Steven Waling

Sun 22nd Jul 2018 10:57

Kipling was never a great poet. Plus he was an apologist for empire and racial superiority. Bloody good on the students.

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keith jeffries

Sun 22nd Jul 2018 10:07

The actions of students at Manchester University can find parallels elsewhere in the world where people find themselves uncomfortable with certain historic facts. Flags are frequently burned to display anger against a particular country´action or policies. Here in Spain, where I live, the target for such derision is often directed against the Franco dictatorship which lasted for several decades emanating from the Spanish Civil War. I have seen street names changed form Calle General Franco and replaced by Calle de Constitucion. Others are the removal of statues of the General from public places and more recently the proposed removal of his body from the Valley of the Fallen to another resting place. The question is ¨What does all this achieve?¨
It serves little purpose other than for people to vent their anger against the Franco regime. In reality it is a denial of history. People would do better to recognise that the dictatorship did exist for good or ill, as the country was very divided during the civil war. A socialist politician broke off the head of Franco from a monument which depicted him riding a horse. What did this achieve?
All nations have their histories and it is better that people acknowledge them and learn from them than to simply eradicate history or write a different version of it.
Those most keen to remove the remains of Franco, often do so to avert attention from their own inept policies.
Rudyard Kipling was a product of the Imperial Era and his poetry reflects that period of British history. Let´s learn to live with it in the hope that we never repeat it.

Keith Jeffries

Big Sal

Sat 21st Jul 2018 19:00

I loved reading Maya Angelou's poetry when I was growing up as it contained one of the few bridges between hip-hop and poetry. Now more to the point of defacing, I think people like to get pissed off over anything nowadays considering the media attention, the ever-changing youth's tactics, and each new day that comes with it. Most people would rather believe the loudest voice in the room even if no one asked what it had to say. Just like those same people would rather ignore the humblest voice even if it was asked a hundred times and happened to be right. Protesting with poetry though? Hell yeah, some more of that everywhere would be great to see. There's already graffiti art of everyone's favorite singers, rappers, and actors in the least likely of places, why not add some flavor and throw in some actual words of merit to aid their endeavors? Here in the States, the only places in my home state that I have actually seen poetry posted on a wall for all to see (and not in protest) were at a cemetery and the zoo.

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