If We Must Die
Writer Claude McKay immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1912. Through his ability to depict the struggle of black people in America, McKay established himself as one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance, along with Langston Hughes. After he watched violent race riots which consumed American cities during the Summer of 1919, he wrote the poem ???If We Must Die.??? It was published in the July 1919 issue of the magazine Liberator (Ramesh and Nirupa Rani 5). ???If We Must Die??? was written to convince black people to take action against racial oppression and suppression. The poem ???If We Must Die??? is written in the style of English sonnets which use blank verse to mimic the way people speak. Blank verse is also known as iambic pentameter which alternates five soft and five hard syllables within each line. An example of iambic pentameter is found in the opening line: ???if WE must DIE, let IT not BE like HOGS.??? The rhyme scheme used a lot in English sonnets are ababcdcdefefgg, which McKay uses like this: the ???a??? words are ???hogs??? and ???dogs,??? the ???b??? words are ???spot??? and ???lot,??? and so forth until the poem ends with the ???g??? words ???pack??? and ???back.??? The poem consists of three quatrains of four lines each and finishes with a rhyming couplet (Tillery 28.) McKay used English-style sonnets to structure ???If We Must Die,??? not as a byproduct of his British structured schooling, but as a way to prove to white readers that a black poet can be just as literate and educated as any white writer (Keller).
Although this poem was written in response to racial violence, McKay never once uses the word race.??? McKay pointed out that the poem embraces all oppressed or challenged people with the revolutionary message to fight heroically back against those who seek to destroy or oppress them (Tillery 34).??? It was the universal reach of ???If We Must Die??? which initiated Sir Winston Churchill to recite this during World War Two (Ramesh and Nirupa Rani 70). To illustrate the poem??™s universality, McKay uses animal like imagery.
McKay says that ???the only way to effectively counter injustice is to stand up and fight back.??? However, McKay acknowledges that the fight against oppression may result in death by repeating the phrase ???if we must die??? in the first and fifth lines. But McKay warns against becoming like animals, to keep ones dignity as humans and to fight as humans do, not as beasts (Cooper 100). To illustrate the poem??™s universality, McKay uses animalistic imagery. The first quatrain shows the oppressors as animals, like in the phrase ???mad and hungry dogs??? in the third line. Not only are the oppressors characterized as animals, but oppressed people are urged not to act like animals, as in the simile ???let it not be like hogs.??? The word ???hogs??? is important because ???If We Must Die??? is a call to action, not just to accept oppression and injustice by remaining apathetic (Heglar). In other words, McKay suggest oppressed people not to act like apathetic animals, accepting horrible conditions and humiliation, as in the second line: ???Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.??? McKay expands on the problem of oppressed people by saying they are commonly surrounded by oppressors, as in the third line: ???While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs.??? Not only are oppressed people out-numbered, they are humiliated by those who use unjust and destructive tactics to exert their power (Tillery 42,) as in the fourth line: ???Making their mock at our accursed lot.??? Here ???accursed lot??? has a double meaning. This phrase applies to poverty-stricken conditions that many oppressed people are forced into by oppressors. The phrase also applies to the oppressed people themselves who were cursed by oppressors through persecution and injustice. Tillery says not only are oppressed people forced into horrible conditions and cursed as a people, but, to make matters worse, they are attacked and treated with derision and contempt, as in the phrase ???making their mock.???
The second quatrain sums up the entire poem. McKay constantly expresses that oppressed people are to not give up. Although the odds may be against them, and the fight may seem hopeless, what is being fought for is worthwhile. This is a fight for the right to live with honor and self-respect, shown by the phrase ???O let us nobly die,??? which is reminiscent of the phrase ???let it not be like hogs??? in the first line. No matter how hard and painful the fight may be, oppressed people must never lower themselves to the bestial level of those they fight against and never become apathetic to their plight in life. Even though the struggle may end the lives of oppressed people who choose to resist, their deaths should not be pointless. Instead, the conduct of their sacrifice should be so heroic, it would impress the oppressors. The value of their sacrifice is indicated by the phrase ???our precious blood may not be shed in vain.??? The defiant struggle against oppression should be so exemplary and honorable that the oppressors, shown by the word ???monsters,??? would feel awe. This is the meaning of the phrase ???constrained to honor us.??? However strenuous the struggle may be, McKay again warns of the struggle??™s potential lethality, as in the words ???though dead.??? The third quatrain expounds on the struggle described in the preceding quatrains by heightening the poem??™s militant rhetoric (Tillery 44.) This shift towards militancy follows earlier cautions against apathy in the face of brutality, and focuses on fighting vigorously. McKay begins with a call to arms to his comrades with the phrase ???O kinsman we must meet the common foe.??? This phrase is a reminder of the ???St. Crispin??™s Day??? speech from Shakespeare??™s Henry V, and supports the idea that a black writer can be as literate and educated as any of his white contemporaries (Keller).
Tillery also says ???for the struggle to succeed, incredible odds must be overcome. In each struggle against oppression, those who oppress have far greater numbers than the oppressed. They are ???outnumbered.??™ However, if the oppressed move beyond their fear and be ???brave,??™ they will know that the struggle has been worthwhile. Even if their casualties are greater than the oppressor??™s casualties, the oppressed can draw strength from their courage. In other words, ???one deathblow ???will prevail over ???their thousand blows.??™???
No matter how hard the struggle may be, the oppressed have nothing more to lose than their lives. The ???open grave??? is preferred to living under oppression and in humiliating conditions. Here McKay expands on his earlier warning that no one should live as apathetic ???hogs,??? referring to the first and second lines, and the phrase ???accursed lot??? in the fourth line (keller.)
The last two lines of ???If We Must Die??? make a rhyming couplet which increases the poem??™s sense of urgency and desperation. In the struggle against injustice and oppression, sacrifices must be, and will be, made. It is with these sacrifices that the enemy will know that those who fight against them are deadly serious (Keller.) By conducting themselves in a manner which preserves their honor, the struggle against oppression becomes a morally correct struggle. McKay increases the virtuousness of the oppressed by contrasting them as ???men??? as opposed to the oppressors who are nothing more than a ???murderous, cowardly pack.??? This phrase expands on the accusation in line three that the oppressors are ???mad and hungry dogs.??? Oppressors are not humans who will die with their nobility intact, and are nothing more than timid animals driven insane by their own murderous, debased urges (Keller).
No matter how desperate the struggle becomes, the oppressed will never back down. Even if pushed to their absolute limit, in other words, ???pressed to the wall,??? the oppressed will never cease struggling and will never surrender. The oppressed are so committed to their cause that the threat of death will never deter them from fighting to gain justice, equality, and freedom from oppression (Cooper 99). This is what the phrase ???dying, but fighting back??? expresses.
Throughout ???If We Must Die,??? Claude McKay establishes a code of conduct for the struggle against tyranny, oppression, and injustice. It is this code which allows for a moral struggle against those who debase themselves through acts of oppression. Although inspired to speak out against racial hatred and violence, the poem??™s universal nature acknowledges the plight of oppressed people of all races, color, and creed. McKay urges that only commitment and militancy will overcome severe and lethal opposition.
On February 1, 1902, James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, and he became a prolific writer who devoted most of his energies to poetry. Hughes incorporated his personal experiences and Black America??™s experiences into his writing, developing an impressive body of poems, novels, memoirs, plays, and short stories and in his work, he puts forth images of African-Americans, jazz music, and many more topics that have been a part of his life. These elements are what influenced him, and shows it in the works that he has written. He uses jazz and blues styles for subjects and for structure in his pieces of literature. In Hughes poetry, he would try to bring out the sound, cadence, and rhythms from blues and jazz music. He would also use humor, loneliness, and despair, to imitate the sound of blues and jazz music with words.
Unlike Claude McKay, Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.
In conclusion, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay were both male African American poets who were highly productive during the period known today as the Harlem Renaissance. Both poets were pulled from elsewhere to Harlem, a section of New York City that by the early 1920s had been dubbed the ???mecca of the New Negro.??? Most of their obvious similarities end there, as their poems tend to be very different in terms of form and language. The form of Hughes??™ best known poetry can be characterized as free, whereas the form of McKay??™s best known poetry can be characterized as fixed. In other words, Hughes??™ poems tend to have lines of varying length and only occasional or irregular rhyming, whereas McKay??™s poems are often modeled very closely on the English and Italian sonnets, with measured lines, predetermined length, and fixed rhyme schemes. Similarly, but less certainly, the language of Hughes tends to be more familiar and informal than the language of McKay (Jones.)
Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987. Print.
Heglar, Charles J. “Claude McKays `If We Must Die, Home to Harlem, and the Hog Trope.” ANQ 8.3 (1995): 22. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.
Keller, James R. “`A Chafing Savage, Down the Decent Street: The Politics of Compromise in Claude McKays Protest.” African American Review 28.3 (1994): 447. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 30 Nov. 2009.
Listening to What the Ear Demands: Langston Hughes and His Critics
Meta DuEwa Jones
Ramesh, Kotti Sree, and Kandula Nirupa Rani. Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc., 2006. Print.
Tillery, Tyrone. Claude McKay: A Black Poet??™s Struggle for Identity. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Print.
Callaloo , Vol. 25, No. 4 (Autumn, 2002), pp. 1144-1175
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press