Dissecting Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”

“If We Must Die” was a rallying poem for young Black writers during the Harlem Renaissance, and Churchill used it to motivate Allied Soldiers against Hitler

Claude McKay | Med'in Marseille
Claude McKay | Med’in Marseille

Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” is a sonnet written in the summer of 1919. The poem was a wake up call to African Americans to defend themselves valiantly and honorably during the widespread rioting that pervaded the country after World War I. The riots in Chicago, particularly, came to be known as “The Red Summer of 1919” because they were characterized by brutality and savagery that saw many large numbers of blacks viciously, unjustifiably, and tragically massacred.

Birth of the Sonnet

Many critics think McKay wrote “If We Must Die” to serve as a hub of inspiration to blacks to put up a strong resistance if so attacked. However, some critics, including McKay himself deny that the riots inspired the poet to write “If We Must Die,” but an undeniable fact is that the theme in the poem smacks of oppression and hegemony.

The Phallus or universal appeal of the poem became evident during World War II when then British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill used it as a motivational weapon in inspiring allied soldiers in combat against Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Genesis of McKay

Born in Jamaica in1890, McKay came to the United States in 1912 and soon became disillusioned with the residual racism that had deeply eaten into the fabric of the society. McKay wrote many poems and books, including “Harlem Shadows” and Home to Harlem, but “If We Must Die” is his best work, and during the Harlem Renaissance, it served as a cradle of inspiration to some of the emerging writers of the Movement.

The sonnet’s diction is elevated language as McKay subtly manipulates the iambic pentameter and the heroic couplet in the poem to carry his message across. The imagery is visual, and the poet uses tropes such as “hunted and penned hogs,” “mad and hungry dogs” to paint a picture of a hapless and helpless oppressed people chased by a relentless oppressor in the poem.

Analysis

A new critical analysis of “If We Must Die” reveals the sonnet to be of the Petrarchian or Italian form. In the first eight lines—the octave—the poet appealing to blacks to be courageous to get up and fight strongly to defend themselves if they are attacked. McKay further notes that, if in the course of audaciously defending themselves, they get killed, the death would be regarded as one of nobility rather than an act of recreant.

Octave

The octave in the sonnet elucidates this assertion:

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!

In addition, the second quatrain is an invocation to blacks reminding them that their precious blood will not be shed in vain if they die fighting. The refrain, “If we must die” in lines one and five, corroborates the passion with which McKay appeals to the conscience of blacks. It is a passion deeply embedded in the knowledge that, the race from which they descend is a proud one, a pride, which must not be traded with mortification.

Moreover, in lines four through six, the poet’s tone is that of a plea. This is a plea for valiance in time of adversity. Isaac Elimimian, a critic, supports the notion that the first eight lines deal with the poet “addressing a group of people, reminding them of their sanctity of birth (‘our precious blood’) and the need to fight for honor.” Charles Heglar adds that the first four lines of the poem establish McKay’s disdain for passivity in the face of degradation and violence.

Sestet

The sestet is the resolution in which the poet encourages his people to face the enemy squarely despite the huge disparity in numbers. For McKay, if they are able to counter every thousand blows received by his people with “one deathblow,” it would be part of the solution to the injustice. McKay notes in the sestet:

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!

The sonnet’s imagery is visual as well as auditory. Metaphors such as “hogs,” “dogs,” and “pack” help the reader visualize the relative passivity and hopelessness McKay was protesting about, and the dastard height the oppressor was willing to rise to exact his wishes on the oppressed.

Resisting Mockery

Indeed, McKay makes the reader not only see these developments in his or her mind’s eye, but also he empowers the reader to hear the sound. The barking of the mad and hungry dogs is a sound image, which intensifies the viciousness of the oppressor. Furthermore, the line, “making a mock at our accursed lot,” alludes to the japing, routine litany of curses lashed out by the oppressor to the oppressed. McKay feels such mockery must be resisted fiercely.

Finally, the sonnet’s scansion is the iambic pentameter with the “ababcdcdefef gg” or alternating rhyme scheme, which ends in a couplet.

Samuel Doku

 

 

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About Dr. Sam Doku
Dr. Samuel O. Doku is a professor and a writer. He earned his Ph.D. in English with concentration in African American Literature from Howard University. He is a W.E.B. Du Bois scholar whose book is titled Cosmopolitanism in the Fictive Imagination of W.E.B. Du Bois: Toward the Realization of a Revolutionary Art. His articles have been published on Google Scholar, in the International Journal of English Language, Literature and Humanities, and College English Association Magazine (CEAMAG).