The Kipling poem from 1909 appeared on the walls of the newly renovated Students Union building at Manchester University last week.
But having branded the poet a racist and “standing for the opposite of liberation, empowerment and human rights,” students replaced it with Angelou’s Still I Rise.
Blaming a failure to consult with students before adding the Kipling artwork, Sara Khan, who is the liberation and access officer at the union, described him as “author of the racist poem ‘The White Man’s Burdern’, and a plethora of other work that sought to legitimise the British Empire’s presence in India and dehumanise people of colour.”
In a Facebook post she added: “It is deeply inappropriate to promote the work of Kipling in our Students’ Union, which is named after prominent South African anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko.
“As a statement on the reclamation of history by those who have been oppressed by the likes of Kipling for so many centuries, and continue to be to this day, we replaced his words with those of the legendary Maya Angelou, a black female poet and civil rights activist.”
Kipling’s If is widely considered to be one of the nation’s favourite poems, with its most famous lines – “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same” – inscribed at the entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court.
His books include classics of children’s literature such as The Jungle Book, but in more recent years his work has been criticised for sympathising with colonialism and having racist overtones.
Fatima Abid, general secretary of the students’ union, wrote on Twitter: “We removed an imperialist’s work from the walls of our union and replaced them with the words of Maya Angelou.
“God knows, black and brown voices have been written out of history enough, and it’s time we reverse that, at the very least in our union.”
The university has declined to comment, saying it is a matter for the students’ union. A spokesman for the Students’ Union said: “We understand that we made a mistake in our approach to a recent piece of artwork by failing to garner student opinion at the start of a new project. We accept that the result was inappropriate and for that we apologise. We understand why our Exec Team took the action they deemed appropriate at the time to right a wrong inside their Union.
“It highlighted the need to adjust our processes and control mechanisms to guarantee that student voices are heard and considered properly so that every outcome is representative of our membership.
“We’re working closely with the Union’s Elected Officers to learn all we can from this situation and are looking forward to introducing powerful, relevant and meaningful art installations across the Students’ Union building over the coming months. The painting of Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ is a brilliant start to that initiative.”