Claude McKay’s poem, “If we Must Die” talks about tensions between African Americans and Whites and paints a gloomy outlook about the future of race relations in the U.S. The poet is incensed by the restrictions that make it difficult for African Americans to live free, in a country that they call home.
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It must be noted that this poem had a special role to play in the Harlem Renaissance because it encouraged African Americans to fight against incidents of injustice and oppression.
The poem typecasts the author as a champion for equality and human dignity, who is not willing to stand by and watch his people getting persecuted (Sayre, 2012, p. 1174).
McKay adopts an angry tone in the poem to show his frustrations concerning constant harassments of black people by Caucasian lynch mobs in different parts of the country.
Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Weary Blues”, talks about how blues music helps black people reconnect with their heritage. The persona adopts a melancholic tone yet the power of blues makes him forget about his problems in a short while to help him convey inner feelings about his existence.
The musician described in the poem is a representation of all black people in general that struggle with a conflicted sense of identity, in a strange land they are supposed to call home. The poet describes how the musician sways to the rhythm of the blues and the emotional uplifting he gets out of the experience (Sayre, 2012, p. 1208).
Through the musician, the feelings and experiences of all black people are revealed. The persona and descriptions used in the poem epitomize the Harlem renaissance era, when blacks were free to express their artistic abilities without restraint in a hostile social environment.
McKay talks about hopelessness, violence and retributive justice in his poem. The element of double consciousness comes out when he insists that the black man’s will to survive will always prevail against any form of oppression.
His poem connects the past and present by asking African Americans to use any means to fight against their oppressors to ensure they gain a high level of respect which they deserve.
Additionally, McKay’s poem has dark imagery and speaks about blows, open graves and shedding blood (Sayre, 2012, p. 1174). These elements are symbolic of the struggles African Americans have faced from the days of slavery and how these struggles have shaped their destiny.
The poet seems to be resigned to the fact that African Americans must be willing to make sacrifices to earn the respect and dignity they deserve in the country. The omniscient narration in the poem has an aggressive tone which shows that African Americans are willing to settle scores to safeguard their racial pride.
Hughes consciousness’ is inspired by a strong cultural heritage and inbuilt strength; attributes that define African Americans’ existence in the U.S. He uses a somber mood in his poem to describe the seriousness of his themes and their relevance to ordinary people’s lives.
In a way, the poem seems to be communicating a message of self- appreciation to all African American people living in the country encouraging them not to despair.
His poem seems to be calling upon African Americans not to dwell too much on the past but to focus on having a better future in a country where they are still treated as inferior beings (Miller, 1989, p. 69).
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Hughes calls upon black people to take time and reflect about what they ought to do to overcome different forms of oppression they are subjected to (Duplessis, 2001, p. 118).
McKay’s poem portrays themes of self –belief, valor, suffering and indignity. The title, “If We Must Die”, is a symbolic clarion call to all African Americans to be ready to shed blood to safeguard their pride and dignity.
He insists that collectively, they will remain defiant to their tormentors and they will use all their efforts to fight them, regardless of the consequences. The combative and aggressive tone used in the poem serves as a collective voice telling all African Americans to do more to protect themselves from white lynch mobs (Maxwell, 1999, p. 53).
Elements of pride and dignity are worth protecting and McKay insists that it is better for a person to die a hero than to live a miserable life. He adopts a defiant persona by claiming that all African American men need to show their masculinity by retaliating against their attackers to show that they are proud.
In the end, McKay comes out as a crusader for retributive justice and warns perpetrators that their actions will no longer be condoned.
The illustrations used in the poem demonstrate themes of resilience, tranquility and communal identity and strong cultural attachments. Hughes uses the poem to express black sorrow in the wake of strong discriminative practices that subjugate African Americans.
The blues offer resilience to African Americans encouraging them to forge ahead and make something positive out of their existence. Hughes’ description about the black singer’s hands pressing white keys of the piano, exemplifies the struggle African Americans have to endure, before they are accepted by the mainstream white society.
Moreover, singers and listeners alike are able to forget about their tribulations momentarily, because the rhythm is able to provoke their inner emotional sentiments (Gabbins, 1999, p. 115).
The blues is a representation of the collective black soul because it continues to echo in the musician’s head even after he has gone to sleep. Therefore, the suggestive message brought out by the powerful lyrics of the blues makes the singer appreciate his heritage and all it represents.
Poem: There was a Time
The Harlem Renaissance was a time,
When black artists were conscious and their ideas flowed freely,
Provoking minds of men and women, suffering from similar fates,
Yet, amidst all this doom and gloom, they stood out from the rest,
And they overcame their fears, limitations and hopelessness,
By writing and narrating powerful words, that nourished and uplifted the soul.
One acted as a crusader, beseeching all black men and women,
To regain their dignity, pride, self-respect and honor,
That had been taken away from them by their oppressors,
By fighting back viciously against the oppressor,
Because that was the perfect time for retribution and heroism,
That would redefine racial relations and attitudes in the country.
Another one, encouraged African Americans,
To look back at their heritage with pride and nostalgia,
And reminisce about both the good and the bad times,
To reflect about their purpose and true destiny,
To improve their attitudes about their own existence,
By listening to the soft and evocative rhythms of the blues.
Duplessis, R.B. (2001). Genders, races, and religious cultures in modern American poetry, 1908-1934. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Gabbins, J.V. (1999).The furious flowering of African American poetry. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press.
Maxwell, W.J. (1999). New Negro, Old Left. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Miller, R.B. (1989). The art and language of Langston Hughes. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
Sayre, H. M. (2012).The humanities: culture, continuity and change. New York, NY: Pearson.