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Art, Commentary and Evidence: Analysis of "The White Man's Burden"

In this activity students analyze Kipling's famous poem about imperialism and read several poems that were written in response to it. Students discuss how effective the poems are as art, political commentary, and historical evidence.

Objectives

  • Students will analyze the poem "The White Man's Burden" and poems written in response to it. 

  • Students will be able to describe different arguments, for and against, United States imperialism.

  • Students will weigh the strengths and weaknesses of several poems as works of art, political commentary and historical evidence.  

Instructions

Step 1: Pass out copies of the worksheet and Kipling's "The White Man's Burden" to each student. Students should individually read the poem and answer the questions in Part I of the worksheet. Then lead the students in a discussion of "The White Man's Burden," going over students' responses in Part I. 

Step 2: Divide students into small groups of 2 or 3 students. Pass out the essay "'The White Man's Burden' and Its Critics" and (optional) pages 8-9 of the Savage Acts viewing guide. Ask students to read the information in their groups and discuss how it enhances their understanding of the poem. The group should compose a response in Part II of the worksheet.

Step 3:  Explain to students that Kipling's contemporaries wrote dozens of parodies and critiques of "The White Man's Burden" and the imperial ideology it espoused.  Four of those poems are listed in Part III of the worksheet.  Each group should choose one of the three poems from the list to investigate further.  Make sure that at least one group analyzes each poem.  Pass out the poems to the groups and give students time to read and answer the questions.  

Step 4: Reconvene the whole class.  Ask a representative from each group to read a brief excerpt (1-4 lines) from the poem they read and share some of their findings with the whole class.  Possible wrap-up discussion can include a discussion of how well the poems work as art, political commentary and/or historical commentary

Historical Context

Debate over U.S. imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century occurred not only in newspapers and political speeches, but in poetry as well. In 1899 the British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem "The White Man's Burden," which urged the U.S. to take up the "burden" of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become vice-president and then president, copied the poem and sent it to his hand, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting that it was "rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view." Other authors, by contrast, wrote parodies and critiques of Kipling's poem and the imperial ideology it espoused. John White's "The Black Man's Burden," Henry Lebouchère's "The Brown Man's Burden," and Howard S. Taylor's "The Poor Man's Burden" were three such parodies.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Art, Commentary and Evidence: Analysis of "The White Man's Burden",” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1502.

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