Home >> Volume 13 (Spring 2013) >> 2013 General Section >> Helene Schlein on "Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line"

Helene Schlein on "Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line"

cover art for shadowing the white man's burden

Gretchen Murphy

Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line

New York University Press, 2010
288 pages

Reviewed by Helene Schlein

Gretchen Murphy’s work, Shadowing the White Man’s Burden: U.S. Imperialism and the Problem of the Color Line, investigates the ‘white man’s burden,’ both Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem and the practice of what Murphy identifies as the “thankless task of colonial administration.” Murphy’s analyses examine not only global imperialism but imperialism within the US and the “manipulation of Indian and black labor.” Murphy identifies the role that nonwhite Americans played in the “new world mission” not only abroad, but at home. She notes that many white Americans wavered between “pride and discomfort” about both their national and their international roles to come. While she examines whiteness’s role in nineteenth-century American fiction, however, Murphy focuses not on canonical texts by white authors but on literature by writers of color.

 In Part One, Murphy examines Kipling’s reception history in the United States. She notes that “The White Man’s Burden” led to an “unprecedented surge in Kipling’s popularity” that resulted in popular renditions of the new celebrity through satire and parodies. Despite the clarity of the poem’s meaning today, however, contemporary readers often “expressed a surprising amount of confusion about its meaning,” and Murphy argues that their confusion reflected an underlying “ambivalence about the idea of the United States taking up a ‘white’ imperial mission.” Before identifying how other writers responded to Kipling’s poem’s implications, she notes the questions the poem necessarily asks its readers: “Who is the white man? What does the United States have to do with a white racial mission? And how does that mission coexist with internal racial heterogeneity?”

In Chapter One, “The Burden of Whiteness,” Murphy notes that Kipling’s poem is rarely a subject of critical literary analysis and points out the poem’s genre as both a literary and political work. As such, it necessarily invokes a tension between perception and reality: “by celebrating whiteness as both an explanation and a goal of the civilizing mission, Kipling’s poem invited reflection on the meaning and definition of whiteness that its fragile and shifting construct could not completely bear.” Indeed, Murphy’s close reading of the poem portrays the white man’s duty as demeaning and its results minimal, such that it may function for readers also as satire. The poem, nonetheless, raises questions about race, maturation, and gender as it represents the pursuit of empire as a pursuit of national adulthood, manhood, and racial superiority. Murphy argues that the white man’s burden was more a development of white masculinity than a global mission to correct savagery.

Murphy then turns to literary responses to Kipling’s conception of whiteness, first through Thomas Dixon’s popular novel The Leopard’s Spots (1902). Whiteness is so unstable that rather than representing it, Dixon attempts to reconcile its contradictions. Murphy asserts that Dixon applies the white man’s burden to the United States to argue that segregation is necessary not as a civilizing project but as a defense against domestic ‘savagery.’ He focuses on the urban poor and immigrants to “maintain the concept of a philanthropic mission while denying a democratic destiny for all men.” Dixon’s novel becomes a project to define whiteness as both an inheritable trait and a performance of citizenship which necessarily excludes blacks and ethnic whites. Thus, Murphy argues that the white man’s “burden is not bringing civilization to the hopelessly inferior races; rather, they aim to keep it away from them.” Nonwhites, Murphy argues, rather than being the target of the white man’s burden, become entirely excluded from its mission.

Part Two, “The Black Cosmopolite,” focuses on how black masculinity developed for nineteenth-century Americans. Murphy reads publications in Colored American Magazine to reveal ‘black cosmopolitanism’ as a way in which African Americans negotiated between “national belonging and transnational identifications with an Atlantic black diaspora,” or between civilized and nonwhite. Blackness in the United States becomes part of a national project, and Murphy asks, “If a black man carries the white man’s burden, how can that burden manifest and establish white masculinity?” Chapter Three attempts to answer this question by focusing on ways in which white Americans advertised the imperialist project. Through the fiction of Frank Steward, Murphy identifies “de-raced” characters whose races lack a corresponding social meaning, forcing a reader to “interpret racial silence as a self-conscious forgetting, thus bringing race back into view through a more critical lens as it begs the question of its importance.” By focusing instead on the divides between fluency and non-fluency, standard and vernacular, east and west, and male and female, Steward “suppress[es] domestic race inequalities to prioritize a linguistic, gendered, and racial divide between American and Filipino,” ultimately reminding readers of the color line within the United States. Chapter Four shifts its focus to Africa and its portrayal in Colored American Magazine. Murphy reads Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood: Or, the Hidden Self (1902-1903) in which “a racially ambiguous figure shadowing the white man’s burden both symptomizes and diagnoses the magazine’s uneasy linkage between African American uplift and U.S. global power.” The novel raises the question of “whether colored American uplift was a national or international issue.” The answer is overdetermined, for Black cosmopolitanism, as Murphy argues, reveals that “the United States is already, in Dixon’s terms, a mulatto nation.”

Part Three of Murphy’s work investigates nonwhite peoples seeking United States citizenship. She argues that the refusal of citizenship to Asian and Native Americans denied these individuals participation in the imperialist project, and their reciprocal relationship: “domestic racial hierarchies and definitions of nonwhite and questionably white residents were negotiated through the shifting lens of U.S. interests abroad.” Murphy’s Chapter Five, “How the Irish Became Japanese,” investigates the plasticity of race through Edith Maude Eaton’s fiction. Murphy argues that shifting ideas of race ultimately ‘whitened’ the nation rather than allowing for difference: “Coming to terms with a nonwhite nation as an equal was easier if one simply decided that the nation was in fact white.” In Chapter Six, Murphy focuses on how a global color line that divided whites from Asians appears in the United States to racialize American Indians. Murphy reads Ranald MacDonald, an American Indian who when traveling to Japan hovered in a liminal state between white and nonwhite, in order to reveal how mixed ancestry as “nearly white” allowed for passing as both subject and object of the white man’s burden. Murphy argues that this passing as white without necessarily being so can contribute to the erasure of violent histories.

Murphy’s work highlights how nonwhite figures at this time helped navigate “the heterogeneity of the United States when imagining it as a world power.” Through her focus on nonwhite imperialist American literature, Murphy delineates how these racial roles allow for reflection on racial, national, and colonial history in the United States. Ultimately, the writers Murphy discusses offer “a sense of possibility pulled from the interstices between race and nation and pieced together from an imperial history more uncertain and internally divided than we often remember.” Her focus on noncanonical texts is a masterful response to the existing New Historical discourse on domestic imperialism. Furthermore, Murphy’s close readings introduce new interpretations of all her texts, but her focus on and application of Kipling’s poem’s reception history makes this work indispensable for studies of whiteness in the US Empire.