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Claude McKay’s Poem ‘If We Must Die’ Essay


Claude McKay’s chef-d’oeuvre poem, If We Must Die, touches on a wide array of themes originating from his personal experiences in the United States during the Harlem Renaissance period. If We Must Die was primarily a reaction to the 1919 widespread unwarranted hate towards African Americans. This hatred was expressed in the form of disparaging speeches and criminal activities, all targeting the black community in the United States at the time.

Right from the opening of the poem, the speaker makes it clear that he and his “kinsmen” are living under constant threats and hatred that borders death. During the 1919 race riots, the hatred crossed the borders of death and caused unnecessary loss of lives, with the majority of the dead being African Americans. This paper builds an argument on McKay’s poem, If We Must Die, about race riots coupled with tensions between blacks and whites at the time.

What is very interesting about McKay’s poem is the bestiality that turns into the humanity of the oppressed group. If this poem were to be viewed as a reaction to the race riots of 1919, the “hogs” could be likened to African Americans, which hints at the “beasts” they were innately believed to be. By using the simile “like hogs,” McKay seeks to distance himself and the black community at large from the wrong perception that they are hogs.

It is only a perception that they are hogs, but in essence, they are simply likened to such dirty animals. Also, even if the blacks are likened to pigs, they certainly do not want to live that way. In the 1919 race riots, the blacks were being treated as pigs – as worthless creatures that do not deserve to live amongst ‘human beings.’ This assertion explains why after Eugene William’s was stoned to death, the police did not take any action against the perpetrators.

On the contrary, they arrested a black person, which defies logic. McKay also plays upon these animals’ living conditions of being “penned” by stating that it is “inglorious” for such a thing to occur and hinting at self-respect and pride that seems excessive for a widely accepted practice.

By 1919, the blacks were widely living like hogs under conditions that McKay describes. First, Africans were “hunted” from Africa and transported to the western world where they were “penned” in inglorious “spots” as slaves. They only fitted well in the ignominious “spot” of slavery.

However, despite living in such conditions, the speaker acknowledges that blacks deserve to be accorded some sense of ‘humanity.’ If they must die, then it should not be like pigs. They need to die “nobly” without shedding their “precious blood.” After being hunted and penned, the blacks continued to suffer in the hands of their oppressors. They were being “barked” at because apparently, animals like the blacks could not take simple instructions.

Another interesting term that is equated with the marginalized people is the “accursed lot,” which can be viewed as African Americans who are believed to be under the curse of Ham, which shows that the speaker is aware of the justification of his oppression. This assertion begs the question, why is it that only the blacks experienced all the aforementioned atrocities? The answer to this question lies in line 4, where the speaker introduces the possibility of a curse.

The only explanation as to why a particular group suffers at the hands of fellow human beings is that the victims have been cursed. Perhaps the theory of Ham’s curse holds because in the chronicles of humanity, no other curse that has been linked to the Africans in general.

The reasons surrounding the killing and shedding of innocent Africans’ blood were unjustified and illogical. To this issue, McKay laments that such “precious blood” is shed in vain. The only explanation for the shedding of such blood is the tensions that had grown between blacks and whites during the Harlem Renaissance.

In the 1919 race riots, over two-thirds of the dead were black people. Nevertheless, the speaker announces that the time for action has come and the ‘hogs’ must arise and defy the monsters that oppress them and reclaim honor even in death. If they must die, they have to die honorably, not like hogs. From line 6 of the poem, the speaker issues an ultimatum that the blacks – his ‘kinsmen,’ have to wake up and fight for their lives.

The speaker rekindles the idea of the humanity of the oppressed group by stating that they have “precious blood,” which is a stab at the belief that they are beasts and a God-appointed group to be exploited and abused. By all standards within the confines of humanity, a human being should not oppress a fellow human being. Driven by this deep-seated truth concerning humanity, the speaker lobbies his fellow oppressed “kinsmen” to defy any form of inhumanity meted against them.

In the 9th line, he establishes the oppressed group as “kinsmen,” which in the context of his call to action invites readers into a new understanding of the qualities of kindness, benevolence, and self-sacrifice, which define a higher understanding of humanity, and in fact, preserve this precious state of existing.

Arguably, one can reason that the speaker is calling his “kinsmen” to execute the very acts that he loathes. He calls them to “meet the common foe” (line 9) and “deal one death-blow” (line 11) to the oppressors. However, while the oppressors are killing innocent blacks and shedding their precious blood without a cause, the speaker is calling the oppressed to action against inhumanity. He does not want to destroy the oppressors, but the oppression.

However, he cannot annihilate the oppression without killing the oppressor first. Therefore, the speaker calls on to his people to be brave – to show audacity by fighting for a worthwhile course. The “common foe” that the speaker refers to in this case is not the white man, but inhumanity. It does not matter who perpetrates it, whether black, white, or red. Such perpetrators are “mad and hungry dogs” (line 3), which need to be tamed.

This form of fight espouses a different kind of humanity- that which is founded on benevolence and self-sacrifice. The disposition to do ‘good’ in this case underscores the need to eliminate oppression and inhumanity from society regardless of the cost. This new form for humanity demands self-sacrifice – the sacrifice to die nobly, but not like hogs.

Such humanity calls for the outnumbered – the oppressed few, to rise, become brave, and even if they are dealt with a thousand blows, to stand and unleash that one deathblow to silence inhumanity. Such humanity says, even “though before us lies the open grave” (line 12), we will fight like men and “face the murderous, cowardly pack” (line 13). Yes, such humanity says even though we are “pressed to the wall” (line 14) and we are “dying,” we will still fight back and earn our honor even in death.

In the last lines, McKay reinterprets the previous setting of the “hogs/hunted and penned,” due to the oppressed group’s newfound courage and acceptance of the seemingly unavoidable demise. McKay encourages African Americans to view their fight with those that would unjustifiably kill them as a death worth dying, as they would now still be “pressed to the wall” (line 14), but be men nobly dying with respect and honor.

Such call redefines humanity to include the version that for the sake of it, people should be ready to die and kill in the quest to restore the largely misguided principle of “humanity” from the eyes of the oppressor. The oppressor thinks that s/he is a better human than the oppressed, but the speaker hints at trouncing this corrupted form of humanity, defying it, killing it, and restoring the definition that acknowledges that ‘we are all humans – equal humans.’

In conclusion, taken from the perspective of the 1919 race riots and humanity aspects, McKay’s poem, If We Must Die, elicits mixed interpretations. In the poem, the speaker exposes a form of bestiality that is dressed in humanity apparels – a corrupted version of the true humanity, which holds that all are equal.

The speaker laments how the blacks are mistreated, which resonates with the 1919 race riots. However, the speaker calls unto his “kinsmen” to defy such bestiality and fight for humanity based on benevolence and self-sacrifice, which is the true humanity.

Works Cited

McKay, Claude. If We Must Die. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2020, April 7). Claude McKay’s Poem 'If We Must Die'. Retrieved from https://ivypanda.com/essays/claude-mckays-poem-if-we-must-die/

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"Claude McKay’s Poem 'If We Must Die'." IvyPanda, 7 Apr. 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/claude-mckays-poem-if-we-must-die/.

1. IvyPanda. "Claude McKay’s Poem 'If We Must Die'." April 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/claude-mckays-poem-if-we-must-die/.


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IvyPanda. "Claude McKay’s Poem 'If We Must Die'." April 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/claude-mckays-poem-if-we-must-die/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Claude McKay’s Poem 'If We Must Die'." April 7, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/claude-mckays-poem-if-we-must-die/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Claude McKay’s Poem 'If We Must Die''. 7 April.

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