H. T. Johnson’s ‘The Black Man’s Burden’ was not the only piece that posed a firm and terse response to Rudyard Kipling’s infamous poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’. Others who were against the ideology presented in Kipling’s work wrote what they thought to be the real burden of the early 20th century. It was the colonizers’ idea to civilize the indigenous people of some faraway land. They not only tried to teach them manners but also uprooted their contact with their own cultural identity. Kipling’s jingoistic poem centered on this idea. But Johnson’s response was not feeble one!
Explore The Black Man's Burden
‘The Black Man’s Burden’ by African-American clergyman H. T. Johnson describes how the whites piled on the burden of shame, guilt, and subjugation on the blacks. Johnson anticipates how God will punish the colonizers.
This poem elaborates what the colonizers did to the natives of Hawaii and Cuba in the first stanza. According to the speaker, they only fought with their clubs and arrows. Whereas the fearless armies menaced the feeble folks. One by one, they ended the red man’s problem with bullets. However, the speaker advises them to defend their honor by not behaving barbarously. In the following stanzas, Johnson alludes to the discriminatory Jim-crow laws and how the colonizers piled the burden of shame on the African-Americans. Whatsoever, God’s wrath is going to end this long cycle of shame and guilt. On this note, Johnson ends his poem.
The title ‘The Black Man’s Burden’ alludes to the infamous jingoistic poem of Kipling. It is a direct response to his poem. So, Johnson just replaced the word “White” with “Black” to create an ironic effect. The title of this piece refers to the burden of shame and guilt that the colonizers piled upon the black, brown, and red men. They kept on piling their ideology on them by defusing the inner potential of colonized. In this piece, Johnson writes in a humorous, satiric, and ironic tone. He adopted this tone to make his point clear to the colonizers and Kipling. That if they are so idealistic about their divine duty, they have to behave themselves first. Otherwise, the divine power will take cognizance and punish them severely.
Johnson’s poem consists of four octaves or stanzas having eight lines each. In each octave, there are two quatrains. This poem contains a set rhyme scheme. The first three stanzas contain the ABCB DEFE rhyming scheme. While the last stanza has ABAB CDCD. This piece also has a regular meter. Johnson wrote it in the iambic trimeter with a few metrical variations. It means there are three iambs per line. The last part of alternative lines is hypermetrical.
Johnson’s ‘The Black Man’s Burden’ includes several literary devices which include but are not limited to the following figures of speech:
- Metaphor: In the very first line the “Black Man’s Burden” is a metaphor for guilt and shame. Johnson uses personal metaphors in “long bleeding Cuba” and “dark Hawaii’s shore”.
- Alliteration: “Black Man’s Burden”, “ye your”, “feeble folks”, “bullets, blood”, etc.
- Allusion: This poem contains allusions to the American geopolitical expansion to Hawaii and Cuba, Jim-crow laws, suppressing the indigenous Red Indians, and Philippine-American War.
- Irony: “Why heed long bleeding Cuba,” “You’ve sealed the Red Man’s problem,” etc.
- Personification: “Though winked at by the nation,” and “Your battleships and armies/ May weaker ones appall.”
Pile on the Black Man’s Burden,
‘Tis nearest at your door;
Why heed long bleeding Cuba
Or dark Hawaii’s shore?
Halt ye your fearless armies
Which menace feeble folks,
Who fight with clubs and arrows
And brook your rifles’ smoke.
Johnson ironically begins his poetic response to Kipling’s jingoistic piece, ‘The Black Man’s Burden’. While Kipling begins each section of his poem with “Take up”. In that place, Johnson writes “Pile on”. This phrase depicts how the colonizers piled on their burden on the colonized people. Johnson’s speaker rather tells them, “No problem, pile on us.” This phrase adds an ironic tone to this piece.
In the first stanza, the speaker tells the colonizers to pile on the burden of subjugation, guilt, and shame on black men as it is very close to their door. He satirically asks them why they are heading toward Cuba and Hawaii for subjugating those innocent people. Are they not satisfied with what they have already done?
The third and fourth line of this stanza contains an allusion to America’s geopolitical expansion upon the island nations in Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean. Besides, in these lines, Hawaii and Cuba stand for their people. It is a use of metonymy.
In the following lines, Johnson depicts how the fearless armies menaced the innocent and weak folks. They tried to defend themselves with traditional clubs and arrows. Whereas the brutal forces made them suffocate with their “rifles’ smoke”. It is a roundabout way of saying that they killed them with rifles.
Pile on the Black Man’s Burden,
His wail with laughter drown,
You’ve sealed the Red Man’s problem
And will take up the Brown.
In vain ye seek to end it
With bullets, blood or death—
Better by far defend it
With honor’s holy breath.
The second stanza begins similarly. This scheme of beginning each section with the same line is called a refrain. To criticize Kipling’s poem, Johnson imitated this technique. In this section, he describes how the black man’s painful wail is drowned by laughter. The colonizers mocked their pain. The speaker can remember how the white colonizers oppressed the North American Indians (referred to as “Red Man”). They were a problem to them. So they brutally wiped them in no time.
The following line contains a reference to “Brown” men. The colonizers called them “browns”. When Johnson penned down this poem, the Philippine-American War was going on. That’s why he says now the American forces are taking up the brown man’s problem.
However, they could not solve their ironic “problem”. So, they felt it was easy to kill them. It would end all the problems. The line “With bullets, blood or death—” bears this idea. This line also contains a climax.
In the last two lines, the speaker mockingly tells them that they would have defended it with “honor’s holy breath.” This line hints at the fact that they were not honorable at all. They hid their black faces under the white facade of honor.
Pile on the Black Man’s Burden,
His back is broad though sore;
What though the weight oppress him,
He’s borne the like before.
Your Jim-crow laws and customs,
And fiendish midnight deed,
Though winked at by the nation,
Will some day trouble breed.
The third stanza deals with the cruel custom of slavery, existing racism in white-dominated nations, and the sufferings of blacks. According to the speaker, African-American people can bear the pain even if they are physically stable. This highlights how strong they were both physically and mentally. The white’s oppression can burden black men brutally. But it cannot harm their tolerance.
The following section begins with a reference to the “Jim-crow laws”. Through this discriminatory law, the blacks were economically and socially segregated. The rulers denied them their basic rights. Besides, the speaker is also aware of the “midnight deeds”. It is a reference to the brutal acts performed silently. It never got public attention. The national leaders and rulers knew about those deeds. They winked at such things. But, the speaker is sure that those deeds will definitely breed trouble in near future.
Pile on the Black Man’s Burden,
At length ’twill heaven pierce;
Then on you or your children
Will reign God’s judgments fierce.
Your battleships and armies
May weaker ones appall,
But God Almighty’s justice
They’ll not disturb at all.
The last stanza of this poem deals with God’s revenge on those who denied the innocent colonized people their rights. The way they are increasing the burden on them will pierce the sky one day. When the acts will come to God’s attention, they will not be in the safe zone anymore. The speaker says then God’s fierce judgment will reign on their children.
Their battleships and armies may have suppressed the voices of the colonized people and made them fearful. But, Johnson is sure about the fact that they will not be spared. God will do justice to them. When He comes to reign, then they will come to their senses.
In this way, the last stanza features a hopeful tone. Readers can also find that this stanza contains a regular rhyming pattern that is not present in the previous stanzas. As the poet is optimistic in this section, this stanza has such regularity. Besides, the rhyming words of this section create an ironic effect too.
H. T. Johnson’s ‘The Black Man’s Burden: A Response to Kipling’ was written in April 1899 after the publication of Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’ in February 1899. In this poem, Rudyard Kipling encouraged American colonizers to civilize the native Filipinos. The themes of racism, white supremacy, manifest destiny are featured in this poem. Readers can also find these themes in other Rudyard Kipling poems. However, writers like Mark Twain, Henry Labouchère, H. T. Johnson, and J. D. Browser quickly responded to Kipling’s jingoistic poem through their works. In this poem, Johnson critically explores the reality behind the idea of “white man’s burden”.
It is a metaphorical reference to the burden of shame, guilt, and oppression that the African-Americans (“black man”) bear on their backs.
The main idea of this poem deals with the oppression that the blacks faced from the white colonizers and how the colonizers are going to be punished by God.
In February 1899, Rudyard Kipling wrote his jingoistic poem ‘The White Man’s Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands’. The poet H. T. Johnson wrote ‘The Black Man’s Burden’ in response to Kipling’s poem.
The “white man’s burden,” is an imperialist term that is used to justify imperial conquest or colonization as a mission of civilization. It is ideologically related to the 19th-century continental expansion philosophy of the manifest dynasty.
The poet of ‘The Black Man’s Burden’ H. T. Johnson was an African-American clergyman, writer, and editor.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly explores the themes present in H. T. Johnson’s satirical poem ‘The Black Man’s Burden’.
- ‘Checking Out Me History’ by John Agard – This poem is about colonial history and examines both sides to critique blind history to shed light on prominent historical figures. Explore more John Agard poems.
- ‘Names’ by Derek Walcott – This poem is centered on anti-imperialism and identity. Read more Derek Walcott poems.
- ‘Mississipi’ by Aimé Césaire – This poem features the Nègritude movement that was started to push off the effect of French colonialism in the Caribbean and West Africa. Explore more Aimé Césaire poems.
- ‘No More Boomerang’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal – This poem features how the Aboriginal Australian culture is at stake due to the Western culture. Read more Oodgeroo Noonuccal poems.