Burden of Cotton

Connor Moo
LaShawnDa Pittman
Burdened with Cotton
An analysis of the White Man’s Burden poem.

White Man’s Burden brought up much confusion for me when I reread it in class as I saw it at first glance when I was younger. When I first read it, I thought the poem progressive for the time, as it urged the white man to “Fulfill the mouth of Famine And bid the Sickness cease” [1] and do other things that would help the downtrodden. But one doesn’t even have to look twice to see the racism. For example, calling the races that are at the mercy of the white man “Half-devil and half-child”. [1] Obviously, this language doesn’t seek equality or recognize the bond of humanity between races. As I return to the poem later in life with a sharper mind, and the ability to think critically, I discover racism that I had never thought of before: the concept of the White Man’s Burden. I had to ask myself the question, was the White Man’s Burden as a general philosophy a force of good? Manipulating the image of slaves from a race to be controlled and exerted for profit, to a place of pity and in need of help? Both sides viewed the black man as inferior; did this philosophy work to benefit the African Americans of the U.S. before the civil war?
The White Man’s Burden, taking it as its own self-proclaimed worth, is the concept that other races need the help of the imperial western powers to become “civilized” as they are unable to become so by themselves. If taken for this and without any other motives, this concept would be considered by some as a more preferable outlook on other races in comparison to the philosophy of white supremacy as it takes a more paternalistic rather than plundering approach to other races that was dominate at the time, even though both are horribly racist in their own ways. Although scholars debate the intentions Rudyard Kipling, [3] the poem’s resulting philosophy was much more sinister.
The concept of the White Man’s Burden is broad and was applied across the word by the western powers. Long before the poem was written in 1899, the concept was at work in the United States defending slavery. [2 p4, p7, p8] This form of the White Man’s Burden was the more sinister side of it. Instead of focusing on the helping of the race to become civilized, it focused on the idea that other races could not develop civilization and were therefore inferior.
John C. Calhoun said “Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” [2 p7], and his argument was a very common defense of slavery. Disregarding how he relegates a section of an entire content as lacking of any form of civilization (which is a willful feat to ignore the three known kingdoms of the time ranging from 600 B.C. [5] to 1810 [4]), the words he speaks are the thickest hypocrisy I have ever heard. We go now to see the peak of civilization slavery has brought these people on Calhoun’s own plantation. What better physical representation for the civilization Calhoun has brought to them than the literal rotting homes[6] that were built for them, or the “Whip of scorpions”[6] used to create scarred but now civilized people. Or perhaps we will find the light of civilization in the intellectually he brings to his slaves, as his supports the slaves codes that prohibit the literacy of slaves [7]. Maybe the light of civilization is in the morals he teaches his slaves? The fact that his overseer permitted rape [6], in order to impregnate and break the spirit of a rebellious slave girl is surely teaching the morals that are important to them. Calhoun’s statement about the White Man’s Burden and the contrast with his actions show the nature of the role it plays. It is a justification to many slave owners as they would rather think they are civilizing the blacks, and they are enduring a great burden by doing so. In reality, they own slaves for profit. If they truly wanted to civilize them, slaves would be liabilities, requiring education and “cultural guidance” to become like the white man, but they paid for the slaves knowing that they would work them.
Another argument made by slave owners in relation to the White Man’s Burden was that “their owners would protect them and assist them when they were sick and aged, unlike those who, once fired from their work, were left to fend helplessly for themselves”[2 p8]. This is the side of the White Man’s Burden that assumes that the inferiority of the other races justifies the white possession of them. In reality this was blatantly wrong, many blacks/freed slaves had functioned extremely well in the uncertain century and beyond. The first slave to work in the colonies, Anthony Johnson, had a flourishing farm running by the time he died and many more did the same [8]. Clearly it would be accurate to say that given the opportunity blacks had the brain power to function and flourish in society. The main reason they floundered would be legal and social discrimination. Also the concept of providing and protecting went just about as far as the value of the slaves,[6], meaning a slave was only protected and healed because they had monetary value. The part about caring for the elderly and providing medicine was in reality severely lacking. [6] Slaves had to find most of their own remedies, and if a complex affliction would leave a cured slave disabled, the cure was almost never in sight. The promised protection was also never really given, as the slaves were always at the mercy of their “protectors” and if they were the source of the abuse, there was nobody to defend them. “Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease”[1] was never the honest reality when it came to slavery. The slaves were fed and were cared for to a limited extent, but again, this argument fails at the hurdle of the good of humanity vs profit. None of the proffered hands of the white man extended beyond what would be profitable, proving that these hospitalities are not out of the goodwill and desire to spread civilization.
In summary, the idea of the White Man’s Burden was never used in a wholesome and honest way in the United States of America. It existed as an argument, a shield to hide behind, and a lie to tell ignorant but skeptical northerners in order to remain in power. On the surface it seems like a just cause but any level of inspection reveals the claims the White Man’s Burden made were all proven untrue even with information from that era and before. The slave owners choose to believe they were for a cause when they are for profit. They claimed to be bringers of civilization but they are the dark corners of it. They claimed to be carrying a burden when in reality, the idea of the White Man’s Burden removes rather than gives one the burden of guilt.
The answer to my initial question is that the purported philosophy of the White Man’s Burden was never, in its entirety, at work during slavery in the United States. Even if it was taken to heart by some slave owners, their actions clearly showed that their distain for blacks and lust for money made any semblance of pity or desire to help irrelevant.

The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling [1]
Take up the White Man’s Burden, Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.
Take up the White Man’s Burden, In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain.
Take up the White Man’s Burden, The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.
Take up the White Man’s Burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark[14] them with your living, And mark them with your dead.
Take up the White Man’s Burden And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
“Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”
Take up the White Man’s Burden, Ye dare not stoop to less—
Nor call too loud on Freedom To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples Shall weigh your gods and you.
Take up the White Man’s Burden, Have done with childish days—
The lightly proferred laurel, The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood, through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers!
[1]: Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899.” Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1929)
[2]: ushistory.org, “The Southern Argument for Slavery, 1860”, U.S. History Textbook (copyright 10 January 2008) Web. 15 Nov 2015 http://www.ushistory.org/us/27f.asp
[3]: Douglas Kerr, University of Hong Kong. “Rudyard Kipling” The Literary Encyclopedia. 30 May 2002. The Literary Dictionary Company, 16 Nov 20015.
[4]: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 1989 “Lunda and Chokwe Kingdoms” IN Country Study: Angola 17 Nov 2015
[5]: DeLancey, Mark W., and Mark Dike DeLancey (2000). Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cameroon (3rd ed.). Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press. 17 Nov 2015
[6]: Moore, Alexander, Clyde. Wilson, Shirley B. Cook. “The papers of John C. Calhoun 1848-1849, Volume 26” University of South Carolina press, 2001. 17 Nov 2015
[7]: Sanders, Rose, “A History to remember” Selma, Alabama: Motion Magazine, September 12, 1998, accessed 17 Nov 2015
[8]: Foner, Philip S. “History of Black American: From Africa to the emergence of the cotton kingdom” Oxford University press (1980), 17 Nov 2015

One thought on “Burden of Cotton

  1. 1. The title is nicely thought out. The blog is about the White Man’s Burden, and the title refers to the “Burden of Cotton” as a play on this.
    2. Nice visual representation of the “White Man’s Burden” poster.
    3. I think we’ve covered the White Man’s Burden pretty in depth already in previous classes, but to what degree does the “White Man’s Burden” in slavery match that of the 1900s?
    4. Does a really good job pulling specific details from readings and other sources to support the existence of the White Man’s Burden before the term was even coined, even referring to people like Anthony Johnson.
    5. I can really hear your voice in this blog post, nicely done!


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