?If We Must Die? By Claude Mckay Essay, Research Paper
Clearly provocative and even chilling, ?If We Must Die? by Claude McKay stirs deep and powerful emotions in any who reads it. A poem inspired by violent race riots, it serves as a motivating anthem representative of an entire culture. Graphic and full of vengeance this poem is demanding action, not telling a story. McKay utilizes imagery to its fullest extent creating an end result which any man or woman, black or white, who has ever felt the hard and hateful hand of oppression can relate to.
Written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, one could hardly mistake it for anything so pleasant. Sonnets being traditionally used for beautiful, appealing topics, already there is contradiction between form and substance. The form requires two sections, the first being the first 12 lines and the second consisting of the last two. The substance of the first section is comprised mostly of question while the final lines offer answer and response.
The question McKay seems to be asking of his readers is, ?How would you like to die- as animal or as man?? Throughout the poem he offers the choice- strong or weak, coward or hero, proud or humble? He acknowledges that ?if we must die? and indeed it seems they must, he pleads that it not be like an animal (1). He does not compare them to any animal either, but to the lowest, dirtiest, and most helpless animals American society uses as object of insult. He implores that they ?not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot ? (1-2). The mere image of a hog would embarrass anyone who was referred to as such. Filthy, weak, and often the victims of ruthless slaughter any who did not follow or agree would be ashamed to admit it.
He goes on to compare the perpetrators to ?mad and hungry dogs? who ?round us bark? (3). Traditionally dogs have been used to seek out the hapless and wounded. Dogs rarely die a shameful death, but instead fight to the finish. Using this dichotomy he further illustrates the severance of and between the hunter and the hunted. McKay emphasizes within the first three lines that the conflict at hand is not merely a struggle then, but a fierce hunt in which there is no mercy and only one survivor.
Again in the fifth line he requests that ?If we must die, O let us nobly die,/ So that our precious blood may not be shed/ In vain? (5-7). He reasons that if there is to be bloodshed regardless, then the blood ought not to be shed without a fight. They should not lose their ?precious blood? without any significance or effect, and not in an irreverent manner. If they succeed in avoidance of such vain, then McKay claims that ?even the monsters we defy/ Shall be constrained to honor us through dead!? (7-8) McKay knows that upon a proud death, even those they fought will be compelled to acknowledge their bravery and pride. By referring to the enemy as ?monsters,? McKay makes it increasingly difficult to not follow him. There is no pity or compromising with monsters and every man, woman, and child has his or her own image of a monster. Given this open description they are then free to envision the monster as they see and feel it. They can construct it based on their own fears.
In line nine McKay recognizes the root of their problem as lack of unity. He is aware of the constant struggles within the black community and implores them to put those in the past and to come together to fight the common enemy. He knows that separate they have no chance for they are unorganized and unmotivated. ?O kinsman!? he cries, ?we must meet the common foe!? (9) As ?kinsman? they are more then a group, they are brothers, sisters, family. As family they are also less likely to turn their backs on one another or give up for they will be hurting more than just themselves.
McKay is not fearful of numbers perhaps because he is aware that regardless of numbers their fate is already decided. ?Though far outnumbered let us show us brave, / And for their thousand blows let us deal one deathblow!? (10-11) He knows that they have nothing left to lose but their pride. He inquires of his readers, ?What though before us lies the open grave?? (12)
In his second section, and final two lines, McKay?s tone changes slightly. If in the first 12 lines he was pleading that if they must die, let it not be like animals and in the final lines he offers his solution that they instead should die like men. He climaxes protesting that ?Like men we?ll face the murderous, cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!? (13-14) Again he refers to the enemy as a pack- most likely alluding to his previous metaphor of the enemy as dogs. This time however, he refers to himself and his followers as ?men.? He knows that although they have been treated and looked upon as animals their entire lives, they do in fact have the ability to be men. It is not outside their reach or dreams.
Full of force and even satisfaction that by doing this, something great will be accomplished, McKay instills in all of his readers the sense that this is the only option that will grant them the dignity they have always desired. With this poem McKay gives to his readers a sense of pride and most of all a sense of hope. It was the hope that maybe someday they would be looked at and treated with the respect that they deserved. Although most agree that this poem was written for blacks and against whites, anyone who has ever felt the pain of victimization or humiliation could easily relate. It gives one the sense that pride is worth something still when all else is gone- that no matter how little one may have left or have had taken away, he or she can never be robbed of his or her pride.