Claude Mckay`S ?If We Must Die? Essay, Research Paper
Poetry– Claude McKay “If We Must Die”
One of the most influential writers of the Harlem Renaissance was Jamaican born Claude McKay, who was a political activist, a novelist, an essayist and a poet. Claude McKay was aware of how to keep his name consistently in mainstream culture by writing for that audience. Although in McKay’s arsenal he possessed powerful poems. The book that included such revolutionary poetry is Harlem Shadows. His 1922 book of poems, Harlem Shadows, Barros acknowledged that this poem was said by many to have inaugurated the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout McKay’s writing career he used a lot of dialect and African American vernacular in his writing, which was rather controversial at the time. Writing in dialect wasn’t considered proper for writing formal literature. For this paper I chose the poem “If We Must Die”, one of his strongest political poem included in Harlem Shadows.
The subject matter that McKay writes about is confrontational. Even if McKay used classical poetry techniques to write “If We Must Die”. McKay used the poetry technique of the sonnet by using the 13 lines and 1 last line in the end. In “If We Must Die” McKay uses rhymes, and metaphors to associate and personify the poem. Using these techniques the audience can identify with the writer and the poem itself. The poem at first seems to have been written for a black audience but then it grew tremendously for a wider universal audience. This poem spoke to anyone and everyone who was being oppressed or in a situation that they weren’t in control of. This poem was for anyone who is or was put to death. This poem showed that everyone deserves a noble death, a death of honor and respect not to be beaten and treated like an animal but like a human being.
“If We Must Die” was first published in the Liberator in 1919. Then in his compilation of poetry Harlem Shadows in 1922. Where already the world war had ended. It was one of the very first poems that initiated the tone, subject and matter of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem is revolutionary, it’s the type of poem that makes people think and take action. He made the reader feel important and recognized the value of a human life. McKay believed part of the poets job is to politically inform the minds of people. Leading to the influence of such people as Amiri Baraka, starting the Black Arts Movement.
The poem itself is a validation, recognition of the value of a human life. In the first line of the sonnet “If we must die, let it not be like hogs”. If we as humans die in whatever situation arises, let it not be like an animal, inhumane, without a name and unjust. “If we must die, O let us nobly die”, and eventhough the person might be by far outnumbered, beaten and maimed not to sit there and take the punishment. That there last breaths is one of victory because the person never stopped fighting back. Erasing the idea of passive resistance which made such people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. known for.
Although the poem had a universal appeal, McKay published this poem through one of the fiercest times for African Americans. There were severe racial problems with Blacks and Whites through out sparking violence. In 1919 they’re where countless race riots in Harlem and all over the United States. This poem could have even fanned the flame that the race riots started. This poem itself moved people to stand up for themselves and I don’t doubt that it did.
This poem can easily be read today and appeal to today’s society. It seems that there will always be an oppressed group, that is something we can’t escape from. If the poem “If We Must Die” were read today, I feel it would move countless people into action. Especially now where there are a lot of problems with the New York City police department. The Police department’s using tactics of racial profiling, countless shootings, and deaths of young African American and Latino men. No matter what decade we live in, same rules seem to apply. Their will always be senseless killings, and the job of the poet is to use what is going on in their environment and speak out against it.
I feel a poet is a revolutionary, just like McKay stated that “part of the poets job is to politically inform the minds of people.” To make people think and even influence their actions. Both to motivate and change what is in society. To revolutionize their minds, and help people not be afraid to speak out. “If We Must Die” was also “popularized as a battle cry by Winston Churchill in the European fight against fascism.”(Barros) Ironically, “If We Must Die” had been written as a militant response to a Harlem race riot some twenty years earlier. During a period when “McKay himself wouldn’t have been caught dead supporting a war between capitalist, nationalist states.” (Barros)
“It was during those days that the sonnet, “If We Must Die”, exploded out of me. And for it the Negro people unanimously hailed me as a poet. Indeed, that one grand outburst is their sole standard of appraising my poetry. It was the only poem I ever read to the members of my crew. –Even the fourth waiter – who was the giddiest and most irresponsible of the lot, with all his motives and gestures colored by a strangely acute form of satyriasis – even he actually cried.”
Eventhough Pearson’s Magazine had its offices in the same building as the Liberator. Frank Harris the editor of Pearson’s Magazine wanted to publish “If We Must Die” in his magazine but McKay had already shown it to the Liberator and was accepted, it was being included in the Liberator first. Although Frank Harris and Claude McKay were friends it seems McKay went to the Liberator first because the Liberator has an African American appeal and a wide reading audience. Which seemed to be McKay’s first intention and target audience with “If We Must Die”.
Claude McKay is one of my favorite poets and any reader could understand why. His poetry speaks to a multitude, and this poem “If We Must Die” made the reader, a human being feel important. Instead of seeing yourself as lower than dirt, adapting the mind of the oppressed and not fighting back. We must not sit around while horrendous things happen in our society. If we want a change we have to do it ourselves. “Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.”
If We Must Die
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
- Arno “A long way home” New York Times 1969
- Barros, Paul De “The Loud Music Of life’: Representations of Jazz In the Novels of Claude McKay.” Antioch Review, Summer 1999.
- Claude McKay (1890-1948) March 26, 2000
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