“If We Must Die” appeared in the July 1919 issue of the Liberator magazine. The poem, published after a series of race riots in cities across the country, was embraced widely as a call to resist injustice. McKay became one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance, producing work that evinced both race and class consciousness. The poems below are pieces from Selected Poems of Claude McKay (1953).
Often regarded as the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, he probably did more than anyone else to shape the trends that would later define that literary movement. Frequently explosive condemnations of bigotry and oppression were written invariably and ironically in traditional poetic forms as the sonnet, McKay’s favorite. His work appealed to traditional poetry readers as well as the new wave. McKay understood the power of race-conscious verse. His forms were traditional but his ideas were new.
McKay was born into the peasant class in Jamaica. McKay’s father instilled in his children a suspicion of white people because his own father had been enslaved. McKay’s childhood also embedded profound respect for community and a skeptical attitude toward religion.
McKay’s mentor, Walter Jekyll, helped him publish two books of dialect poetry: Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. McKay was the first black to receive the medal of the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, which came with a substantial cash award.
His most enduring literary ties were with white publications.
In 1919 McKay found much success in England with I.A. Richards, one of the foremost English literary critics of the century writing that McKay’s work was among “the best work that the present generation is producing.”
McKay returned to the U.S. and in 1922 published his most important collection of poetry, Harlem Shadows, virtually inaugurating the Harlem Renaissance. According to McKay, the book grew out of his urge to place the militant “If We Must Die,” his most famous poem, “inside of a book.” The racial violence that racked America in the summer of 1919 had inspired the sonnet, which later served as one of the unofficial rallying cries of the Allied Forces in WW II, particularly after it was recited by Winston Churchill in a speech against the Nazis. This poem proved to many that a black author had the authority to speak on black issues.
In the early 1920s, McKay gained popularity in Moscow where he traveled and spoke. He lived several years in France where he produced his first novel, Home to Harlem in 1928. The author continued to travel.
Home to Harlem was the first novel by a black writer to become a best-seller. People wanted to know about the nightlife and low life of Harlem. It is a tour of Harlem.
The next book, Banjo, continues the story of Ray and is one of the most extraordinary novels of the era, both for its cynical analysis of the impact of the grand forces of modernity (above all commerce and colonialism) on individual black lives, and for its almost documentary depiction of interactions among a wide range of characters of African descent from the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa. Banjo may also have had the greatest international reach of any novel associated with the renaissance. Translated into French in 1931, it was the single book with the most significant impact on the generation of Caribbean and African students that would later come to be known as the Negritude generation.
McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom (1933) is often regarded as his finest achievement in fiction.
In 1934 McKay returned to Harlem. He floundered, then joined the New York branch of the Federal Writers’ Project. By 1937 he had completed his autobiography, A Long Way from Home. The last book he was able to publish in his lifetime was a study of black life in New York, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), which remains an important historical document, with well-wrought portraits of aspects of Harlem life in the 1930s (including the “numbers” racket and the religious leader Father Divine). McKay became a Catholic and taught at their Youth Organization.
McKay did not concern himself with what others thought his work should be. He worked for social change and believed that in order to tell the truth and make great art, some feelings are going to get hurt.
If We Must Die
This poem was written following the “Red Summer” of 1919 when antiblack riots broke out in several cities. McKay never said the poem referred to black and white people specifically. The rhyming scheme is A, B, A, B. In my own words:
If we must die, let it not be like penned-in hogs surrounded by barking, mocking dogs.
We need a noble way to die so our deaths mean something. If we die with dignity, even our killers will have to respect us. Even though we are outnumbered, we must take the fight to them. They may deal a thousand blows, but we will have one deathblow. Nothing lies before us but the grave, but we face it like men and we will fight all the way.
The author can’t think of his people without negative emotions. Much of the wording is negative and sad such as long-suffering, weary, despised, oppressed, enslaved, lynched, and disinherited. The author seeks revenge by an otherworldly force. In my own words:
When I think of all the suffering of my people I become sick with hate. I want an avenging angel to come down and utterly smite the white race. Let it be turned to smoke or disappear so that we may take off the yoke.
Poem translated into my own words:
My spirit longs for where my ancestors came from. If I went there I would speak repressed thoughts, sing jungle songs. I long to return to peaceful darkness, but this world says I owe it something. I try to oblige. My life spark has darkened. I walk like a lonely ghost apart from others. I was not born in my native land. In this white land, I am out of step.