British Students Paint Over Rudyard Kipling Mural In Protest
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In this country, we've been talking a great deal in recent years about memory and memorials - about who and what deserves to be remembered. It's been fraught, especially when the people at the center of the question have qualities that deserve to be celebrated and vilified. There's a similar controversy in England right now over one of the country's most celebrated authors, Rudyard Kipling.
Recently, some students at the University of Manchester in England discovered that a new mural of Kipling's famous poem "If" had been painted in their student union. They weren't happy about it - not because of that specific poem, but because some of Kipling's other works expressed views now seen as racist, including a full-throated support for British colonialism. So the students painted over the mural with Maya Angelou's poem, "Still I Rise." And, as you might imagine, other people took issue with that.
We wanted to hear more about this whole controversy, so we called Manchester University student Deej Malik-Johnson and University of Kent professor Janet Montefiore, who is editor of The Kipling Journal. And I asked Malik-Johnson for the students' perspective first.
DEEJ MALIK-JOHNSON: Rudyard Kipling is a complex character. He is the man - he made "The Jungle Book." He's the man who also wrote "The White Man's Burden." He's the man who described certain people of color as being half-child, half-devil. This imperialist attitude and, frankly, racist attitude which is displayed in some of his work - we find it not appropriate to be in a place which is supposed to be welcoming to all students.
MARTIN: OK. So, Professor, let's pick up the thread here. First of all, do you agree with Deej's analysis of the work - that Kipling himself - there were - that he had racist attitudes? Whether or not those were common in his era, is what he's saying accurate?
JANET MONTEFIORE: Yes, but that's not the whole story about Kipling.
MARTIN: Tell us more about him.
MONTEFIORE: Well, there aren't many writers like Kipling. In the first place, he was a public figure in a way that very few poets on. He was kind of regarded as sort of the bard of the British Empire. He's a very many-sided writer - much more many-sided than people realize. Although he identifies with authority, he always had a sympathy with the outsider and the underdog. And his most famous children's books are about orphans sort of getting by on their wits.
MARTIN: So given all that, Professor, what is your take on the students' decision to paint over the poem with one of their choosing?
MONTEFIORE: Well, the students have a right to have what they want on the wall. They weren't consulted about "If," and they were completely within their rights to substitute something they did want. That said, "If" is not at all a racist poem. It's a poem of good advice. It's a kind of uplift poem. It's not one of Kipling's poems that I've ever been most keen on, not least because its punchline is, if you can do this and do that - and a lot of the advice is very good - if you've been lied about, don't deal in lies, or, being hated, don't give way to hating. That's good advice. But, you know, the punchline is, if you can do all these things - and, which is more, you'll be a man, my son. Well...
MARTIN: You know, like, you are not that, either.
MALIK-JOHNSON: I didn't want to bring that up.
MARTIN: Speaking of not welcoming (laughter)...
MONTEFIORE: But I have to say, it's a poem that's meant a lot to quite a lot of people.
MARTIN: Doesn't it speak to the bigger question of how we should now address ourselves to people who are a part of our cultural patrimony, if I can use that word, and yet whose behavior and beliefs - maybe they were common at the time, but we no longer consider acceptable? It - doesn't it speak to the bigger question of, how should we address these people? And so, Deej, what should we say to people like Kipling, of which there are many?
MALIK-JOHNSON: I think that we need to examine what people say and take what is positive from them and what are cautionary tales. And we should explore and have a deeper reading of as many things as possible. We are students, and we are encouraged to read critically and read broadly. And I think that's really important.
But I think we also need to remember when we talk about things of the time, in the 1860s, the working-class people of Manchester who were cotton spinners chose to not spin cotton made in the southern United States because they felt a solidarity and a brotherhood with African-Americans and did not want to support the Confederacy in the American Civil War. So when we talk about, we need to remember the context of the time, yes, it was a long time ago, but that's not to say that people weren't challenging racism and imperialism at that time as well - people definitely were.
MARTIN: I understand. Professor Montefiore, what's your take on this?
MONTEFIORE: Well, not so different from Deej's, actually. Where I parted company with the student spokesman who was quoted to me was when she seemed to say that Kipling wrote "The White Man's Burden," it's a racist poem, and that's all we need to know about Kipling. We don't want him. That doesn't mean that you simply forget about the past and you airbrush the bits of it that you don't like.
MALIK-JOHNSON: A hundred percent. It's like we need to learn from what's gone before. He who does not read the past is doomed to repeat it. I'm sure some of...
MONTEFIORE: (Laughter) Oh, yes.
MONTEFIORE: I was going to quote that, but you got there first.
MARTIN: Well, that's a very good way to - I think that's a very good way to conclude our conversation. Thank you both so much for a civil and spirited conversation. That was Deej Malik-Johnson - He's a member of the Students' Union at Manchester University - and professor Janet Montefiore, who's editor of The Kipling Journal.
Thank you both so much for speaking with us.
MONTEFIORE: Thank you.
MALIK-JOHNSON: Thank you for having us.
MONTEFIORE: It's been a pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.