If we must die by Claude McKay

claude mckayIf we must die is a poem by Claude McKay, written in 1919, in response to the Red Summer.

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 accursèd 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 death-blow!
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!

Start of Harlem Renaissance

As this article noted, “In the summer of 1919, race riots spread throughout the United States, spurred by the end of World War I. Returning soldiers of all races were looking for employment and tension rose as the number of applicants far exceeded the number of jobs available. The press mixed these racial issues with the concurrent First Red Scare, and soon the conditions were ripe for violence.

“At the time the riots occurred, poet Claude McKay was working as a waiter on a Pennsylvania Railroad dining car. Through his travels on the railroad, he was able to see the violence spread from city to city, constantly aware that he and his fellow black railroad men might be the white mob’s next targets. As McKay himself has written: ‘But its [WWI] end was a signal for the outbreak of little wars between labor and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between colored folk and white… It was during those days that the sonnet If We Must Die exploded out of me.”

Putting this in a broader context: “The Hundreds of writers and artists lived in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s and were part of a vibrant, creative community that found its voice in what came to be called the ‘Harlem Renaissance.’ Alain Locke’s 1925 collection The New Negro — a compilation of literature by and essays about ‘New Negro’ artists and black culture — became a ‘manifesto’ of the movement… The work of these artists drew upon the African-American experience and expressed a new pride in black racial identity and heritage.”

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