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Unsettling Colour Lines at Home and Away

“School Begins” and U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines

Patricia Karunungan

Mar 9, 2018 | News

On 22nd February, the School of Humanities invited independent scholar, Dr. Brian Shott, to present his ongoing research on “Schooling Filipinos: U.S. Empire, ‘Jim Crow Colonialism’, and the Pacific’s Unstable Colour Lines”. The centrepiece of his seminar was a political cartoon by the artist Louis Dalrymple titled “School Begins”, which was published in the American humour magazine Puck on 25th January 1899, not long before the outbreak of the Philippine–American War. It depicts Uncle Sam as a teacher and disciplinarian in a one-room schoolhouse, and seated at the front of the class  are four simian-like and unhappy-looking children. The sashes they wear identify them as “Philippines”, “Hawaii”, “Porto Rico”, and “Cuba”. Dr Shott explained that this image is a divisive one—viewers and historians alike have difficulty classifying it as either pro- or anti-imperialist. However, it is precisely this ambiguity that makes Dalrymple’s cartoon a “mirror” for the complex issues being discussed in the U.S. at the time, particularly the discordance between the benevolent assimilation of Filipinos and the racial inequalities occurring on home soil.


In Dr. Shott’s analysis of “School Begins”, he points out how imperialist values are simultaneously propagated and called into doubt. On first looking at the cartoon, Uncle Sam seems to back then-President William McKinley’s altruistic notion of benevolent assimilation towards the U.S. colonies; he tells the four children: “[Y]ou’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!” The “class ahead” refers to the white children sitting behind the ‘newcomers’, who are drawn in a different art style. Above them is a placard filled with what appear to be pro-imperialist statements, such as: “The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact”.


However, seated near—but separate from—these children is a Native American student drawn as a caricature like as the four newcomers. He is reading a textbook upside-down and the alphabet is written in the wrong order on its cover. As the first colonial subject of the U.S.A., the Native American here calls into question the promise of colonial “education”—can the Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Cuba truly attain “whiteness”, “Americanness”, or racial equality, when it is evident that the Native American has not? Dr. Shott’s historical framework draws attention to additional disconnects between U.S. interests abroad and the rigid colour lines at home by paying particular attention to other liminal figures in Dalrymple’s cartoon: the Chinese and the African-American. In the doorway stands a caricature of a Chinese boy, and it is unclear whether he will enter the schoolroom or is meant to stay outside. Dr. Shott identifies this figure as a representative of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), once again inviting viewers to scrutinise how imperialist values face up to societal reality. The lone African-American figure in the schoolroom, also drawn as a caricature, appears to be even more of a liminal subject. He looks older than the other children and is smiling as he cleans the windows. Is he a truly a janitor, or is he, in fact, also a graduate of Uncle Sam’s school? Both possibilities are problematic and suggestive of the limits of assimilation under “American values”. Moreover, according to Dr. Shott, this figure signifies the Disenfranchisement that black citizens experienced long after slavery was abolished in 1865.


Through his critical engagement with Dalrymple’s “School Begins”, Dr. Shott delved into the numerous historical currencies that informed the issues the cartoon intersects. He devoted a significant portion of time to the affinities that African-American soldiers stationed in the Philippines found between themselves and Filipino nationalist rebels. Both groups saw themselves as victims of U.S. imperialism and black soldiers saw that they had the opportunity for a “dignified coloured life” in the Philippines. Many black soldiers defected and joined the Filipino insurgency but many also served as spies as the U.S. military exploited these racial affinities. African-American newspapers like The Colored American reported that the race question was rapidly solving itself in the colony. However, there were also concerns in the U.S. regarding the status and treatment of Filipinos—in 1903, the African-American civil rights leader Booker T. Washington called Filipinos as a new race problem, and presented a case for categorising the Filipino as black. It seems that while U.S. imperialism can be argued to have reinforced colour lines, it is evident that empire also unsettled previously rigid notions of race.


Dr. Shott concluded his rich and thought-provoking presentation with an appeal to historians to consider “a wider conception of citizenship”. During the lively question-and-answer session, seminar attendees discussed nineteenth-century America as the newcomer to a larger “tradition” of European empire, and the ability of satirical cartoons to reflect not only political issues but resist problematic social values. While “School Begins” can be interpreted as an ambiguous record of the debates surrounding race and U.S. imperialism, the question: “who is in and who is out of Uncle Sam’s schoolhouse?” continues to plague the nation.




Patricia Karunungan is an MA student with the Division of English.