In the current era, a highly-publicized disproportionate threat to African Americans due to unnatural causes––specifically, violence inflicted upon unarmed African-American men and women by armed policemen–– has been acknowledged by the Black Lives Matter Movement, the United Nations, and numerous social justice organizations around the world. A similar threat in 1919 existed in the form of lynching, essentially the practice of murder by hanging, then often castrating, and often burning African-American men.
Barely 10 years old at the time, the NAACP stood as almost the sole voice of protest against the socially-accepted and legally-tolerated practice. The simple reason is because in 1919 Jim Crow laws were exactly that: laws which openly supported an apartheid government and society in America. Whereas the more overt apartheid legislation has been repealed, in 2015 there is much talk of a “New Jim Crow.”
That Blacks and Whites have made tremendous advances in securing social and political equality for all Americans is something most reasonable thinkers would not deny. The conditions as they existed in 1919 were the kinds that challenge poets of any race to prove the significance of their craft. In the case of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay (1889 – 1948) they prompted him to pen his classic poem “If We Must Die”:
If We Must Die: Poem by Claude McKay
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—oh, 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!
Oh, 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!
--(from Harlem Shadows, Harcourt Brace, 1922)
Poetry has often proven an effective instrument for amplifying the voices of those who believe they have been targeted for unfair social and political discrimination; or, worse, tagged for a campaign of potential genocide. Where McKay’s powerful lines are concerned, the author noted the following in his 1937 autobiography, A Long Way from Home:
“Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted… It was during those days that the sonnet, ‘If We Must Die,’ exploded out of me…”
Encouraged by the support of friends, editors, and publishers, the Jamaican-born McKay considered “If We Must Die” both a critical and a political triumph. The distinct rhyming scheme and compact 14 lines of the poem make it easily identifiable as a sonnet. Yet it is a very different kind of sonnet from those with which a reader might associate poets such as Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rainer Maria Rilke.
McKay's Literary Distinction
What sets McKay’s poem apart from other well-known sonnets is its unrepentant call to militant action. By contrast, the sonnets of Cullen or Shakespeare generally focus on philosophical musings or romantic passion. By fusing his lines with unyielding outrage, McKay’s appropriation of the sonnet form became itself a revolutionary act.
After its original publication in the July 1919 edition of the Liberator magazine, “If We Must Die” was published in political advocate Cyril Briggs’ (1888-1966) Crusader magazine, labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s Messenger magazine, and dozens more along with a string of anthologies throughout the “roaring twenties.” In 1922, it became part of the poet’s Harlem Shadows collection, one of the first volumes to signal the growing momentum of the Harlem Renaissance.
The poem exploded through the American psyche at a time when African-American leaders were grappling with the same question with which they are wrestling nearly a century later. They do so as Black boys and men are killed under highly questionable circumstances virtually every week, and imprisoned daily for minor provocations that are more often ignored when the transgressors happen to be White boys and men.
© Juneteenth 2015
PLEASE ALSO SEE:
Red Summer: Text and Meaning in Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” part 1
Fighting Back: Text and Meaning in Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” part 3
Supporter of principles advocated by PEN American Center and the Academy of American Poets, Aberjhani is also the Choice Academic Title Award-winning co-author of the world's first Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance.