Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
“The Black Man’s Burden” is both political and polemical. Its immediate purpose is to satirize and respond to the views expressed by Rudyard Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden.” However, there is a dichotomy between form and content in Johnson’s response. Formally, the poem follows Kipling’s very closely, with eight-line stanzas in an ABCBDEFE rhyme scheme that is embellished with occasional variations. Rhythmically, the lines generally conform to iambic trimeter but include frequent metrical substitutions. The refrain, “Pile on the Black Man’s Burden,” is repeated at the beginning of each stanza, just as Kipling repeated “Take up the White Man’s burden.” The diction, like Kipling’s, is lofty and hortatory, with occasional archaisms, such as “ye” and “’twill.” In all this, Johnson imitates Kipling, making the poem’s satire clear and pointed.
In terms of content, however, the poem makes its own argument, to the point where the refutation of Kipling’s specific assertions, when it occurs, seems somewhat incidental. Rather than engaging in a direct debate with Kipling, Johnson takes his poem as an occasion to explore the racism and injustice of American society. His tone, from the beginning, is bitterly sarcastic. The first stanza suggests that there is no need for Americans to be imperialists abroad when they can continue to make life miserable for Black people without leaving home. It makes the subsidiary point that shooting at people who are themselves armed only with clubs and arrows is hardly dangerous or heroic for the soldiers behind the guns.
Johnson is at his best when wielding irony in this way. The second verse is perhaps the least pointed of the four, because he departs from this ironic tone by offering sincere advice. He says that the white man should use dialogue rather than military force and defend people of other races and cultures rather than attack them. This marks a tonal shift by addressing the issues with earnest dialogue rather than satire. Indeed, it is here that Johnson comes closest to arguing directly against Kipling. One can readily imagine an effective sustained response along these lines, though it is somewhat unexpected to find four lines that take such a different tonal and argumentative approach than the rest of the poem.
The second half of the poem heralds the coming of divine judgment. The third stanza makes the point that all the oppression that has been piled upon the Black man must one day bring retribution on the oppressor. This sounds like a warning of popular uprising. However, in the final stanza, it appears that justice will be dispensed directly from heaven, though the form that divine judgment will take is intentionally left vague. The point is that there will be a judgment—and one much more impressive than the lukewarm judgment with which Kipling’s poem concludes.
Kipling ends “The White Man’s Burden” with the judgment of man. His tone throughout the poem has been one of world-weary resignation, verging on bitterness. He essentially tells Americans not to expect any thanks from the populations they civilize through imperialism. Although Johnson does not engage with Kipling’s specific imperialist arguments and images, he consistently counters Kipling’s attitude with the defiant rebuttal that the sufferings of the white man in the cause of empire-building cannot possibly compare with those of the Black man he oppresses and enslaves in the process. He ends the poem by trumping Kipling’s rather feeble judgment of man with a fiery judgment of God. The American imperialists have not only the grudging approbation of the British to look forward to, but the wrath of the Almighty.
Literary quarrels are often ephemeral,...
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particularly when conducted in verse. This is because the occasion for the dispute generally disappears, and the reader needs to know the context in order to appreciate or even understand the basic meaning of each literary attack. However, debates about racism and colonialism, even those which took place over a hundred years ago, remain all too relevant in the twenty-first century. Moreover, “The Black Man’s Burden,” notwithstanding its formal similarity to “The White Man’s Burden,” can easily be read as a free-standing poem without reference to Kipling. Johnson’s work, therefore, remains on its own terms a biting indictment of racism and colonialism.