The Black Man's Burden Summary

The Black Man’s Burden” by H. T. Johnson is an 1899 poem that critically and satirically responds to Rudyard’s Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden.”

  • Johnson addresses white America, offering a sarcastic suggestion to “Pile on the Black Man’s Burden” instead of engaging in imperial activities overseas.
  • Johnson cites the long-standing discrimination and oppression of Black Americans, noting that there will be future retribution for these evils.
  • The poem concludes with a dramatic depiction of God descending from the heavens to cast judgment on the addressee, who will be powerless against the divine.

Summary

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Last Updated on December 3, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

Introduction

In February 1899, the British author Rudyard Kipling published a poem titled “The White Man’s Burden,” in which he encouraged leaders and opinion-formers in the United States to follow the British model of imperialism in Asia. The poem was controversial and provoked a great number of responses in verse and prose, several of them using the inverse title “The Black Man’s Burden.” The poem of this title by the Reverend H. T. Johnson, an African-American clergyman and journalist, was one of the first, appearing in April 1899 in the Christian Recorder, a journal of which Johnson was the editor. The form of the poem is modelled closely on Kipling’s, using the same meter and rhyme scheme, and repeating the title in the refrain at the beginning of each stanza, with the variation “Pile on the Black Man’s Burden” in reply to Kipling’s repetition of “Take up the White Man’s burden.”

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Summary

The first stanza of the poem begins with a sarcastic exhortation to white Americans to continue their oppression of Black Americans by piling further burdens on their backs. The poet points out the convenience of doing this, asking why anyone would go to Cuba or Hawaii to oppress the native populations there when there are Black people in America who can more conveniently be weighed down with burdens. With this in mind, America should stop sending armies abroad to threaten people who cannot put up a fight, since they have only “clubs and arrows” with which to oppose the American rifles. The poet ironically describes these American armies as “fearless” in their assaults on native populations which cannot defend themselves.

The second stanza reiterates the adjuration to pile burdens on Black people, and it adds the idea of drowning out their wails of anguish with laughter. White Americans have already solved the “problem” of Native Americans by taking their land and rendering them powerless. Now they can turn their attention to Black Americans. The second half of the stanza discusses white Americans’ failed attempts to end the “problem” of the “Brown” man—likely a reference to overseas cultures the United States intends to control imperially—with “bullets, blood or death.” Here, the tone shifts from the sarcasm that has prevailed so far, and the poet seems to make a serious suggestion. Americans have never succeeded in solving problems and bringing peace by shooting at people and killing them. If they really want to help native populations, it would be better to defend their rights honorably than to continue such attempts to subjugate and rule over them.

The third time the poet tells the reader to keep piling on “the Black Man’s Burden,” he observes that although the Black man is in pain, he has been and remains resilient under the weight of oppression. Black people have had to bear similar burdens for a long time. There are the Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation, discrimination, and violence. The poet refers to the “fiendish midnight deed.” This could refer to the lynching of Black people by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the first incarnation of which was founded in 1865 following the abolition of slavery. The phrase could also refer to the rape of enslaved Black people by slave owners or other acts of violence perpetrated within the system of slavery. It is likely that the poet means to refer to these practises, as well as other forms of racist oppression which have gone unpunished. The poet warns that while such atrocities were tolerated by the nation at the time, their legacy will cause trouble and require retribution in the future.

The fourth and final stanza uses the last repetition of “Pile on the Black Man’s Burden” as the occasion for a vivid metaphor. White Americans should keep piling this burden so high on the shoulders of the Black man that one day the burden will reach up and pierce heaven. When it does so, God will finally vent his wrath on the white Americans to whom the poem is addressed—and on their descendants. They may have been able to conquer “weaker” populations, terrifying them with “battleships and armies,” but such shows of military might will have no effect at all on the justice of God. With this dire warning of retribution, the poem concludes.

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Themes