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! 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!Poem If we must die by Claude McKay originally published in the July 1919 edition of the The Liberator
Festus Claudius McKay was born on September 15, 1889 in Nairne Castle, Clarendon, Jamaica. He was the last of 11 children born to Thomas Francis McKay and Hannah Ann Elizabeth Edwards. McKay was educated by his older school teacher brother Uriah Theophilus McKay. Between the ages of 17 and 22 (when he immigrated to the US) McKay worked as a carriage and cabinet maker and as a member of the Jamaican Constabulary. In 1912 he published two volumes of poetry written in Jamaican patois: Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads considered the first poems written in the Jamaican language. That same year (1912) McKay immigrated to the US and entered Tuskegee University in Alabama. Tuskegee University was founded in 1881 by Booker T. Washington to educate African Americans who were refused entry into White post-secondary institutions and today remains one of the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the USA. The rabid racism he encountered in the southern United States including the segregated facilities and other Jim Crow laws (don’t look white people in the eyes and step off the sidewalk to let them pass) were too much for the proud Jamaican. McKay left and enrolled at Kansas State University, Kansas being a state where there supposedly were no signs or sight of Jim Crow. Kansas had entered the Union as a free state (no slavery) and after the American Civil War there was an exodus of African Americans from the southern US to Kansas; so many of them that they were called the “Exodusters.” McKay was definitely following in their footsteps. In 1914 he was on the move again, this time to New York where he spent most of his American sojourn.McKay wrote “If We Must Die” amid the violence and bloodshed of 1919, encouraging his community to fight back against the oppression (76 African Americans were lynched in 1919) they suffered at the hands of white Americans. The so-called “race riots” of 1919 involved the brutalization and murder of African Americans by white Americans in several cities including Chicago, Omaha and Washington. African Americans had returned from fighting in Europe (1914-1918) to preserve “freedom” but nothing had changed for them or their communities, they were third class citizens in their country of birth, subject to lynching at the hands of their white compatriots. McKay left the USA in 1919 and until 1934 lived in Africa, Europe and Russia. In 1922 he published a book of poetry “Harlem Shadows” which included the poem “The Lynching”
His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven. His father, by the cruelest way of pain, Had bidden him to his bosom once again; The awful sin remained still unforgiven. All night a bright and solitary star (Perchance the one that ever guided him, Yet gave him up at last to Fate's wild whim) Hung pitifully o'er the swinging char. Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view The ghastly body swaying in the sun The women thronged to look, but never a one Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue; And little lads, lynchers that were to be, Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.In The Lynching McKay captures the emotions, the nuances of the lynching of African Americans by white Americans. America is supposedly a “Christian” nation where white Christians murder and terrorise African American Christians. The image at the beginning of the poem of the lynched African American in a Christlike manner being gathered up to heaven into the bosom of the “father” is a very powerful symbol of the crucifixion of African Americans. Another powerful image in the poem is that of the white women showing no sorrow in their “eyes of steely blue” as they thronged to look at “The ghastly body swaying in the sun.” This image is very reminiscent of the women who lined up every day to howl and shriek with rage, swear, threaten death and throw objects at six year old Ruby Nell Bridges as she bravely integrated the William Frantz Elementary School at 3811 North Galvez Street, New Orleans, Louisiana. A truly heartbreaking sight captured for posterity in the Norman Rockwell portrait The Problem We All Live With http://www.artdaily.org/index.asp?int_sec=2&int_new=48904 With mothers like those as role models no wonder there were: “little lads, lynchers that were to be” who “danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.”
It is indeed ironic that the Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With is on display at the White House where the first African American President and his family live. When McKay wrote his poem The White House in 1919 when 76 African Americans were reported lynched by their white compatriots, (that number was most likely very conservative) such a scenario was unthinkable almost in the realm of science fiction.
The White House by Claude McKay published 1919 Your door is shut against my tightened face, And I am sharp as steel with discontent; But I possess the courage and the grace To bear my anger proudly and unbent. The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet, A chafing savage, down the decent street; And passion rends my vitals as I pass, Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass. Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour, Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw, And find in it the superhuman power To hold me to the letter of your law! Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate Against the potent poison of your hate.McKay also published America in 1919
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth, Stealing my breath of life, I will confess I love this cultured hell that tests my youth! Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, Giving me strength erect against her hate. Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood. Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state, I stand within her walls with not a shred Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer. Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, And see her might and granite wonders there, Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand, Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.This poem demonstrates his feelings of ambivalence living in this totally white supremacist culture yet with the optimism and vigor of youth intending to remain and fight the good fight for equality and equity. However even youthful vigor can become depleted in what was seemingly a never ending tide of attack on the personhood and humanity of African Americans. No wonder McKay fled the USA in 1922 and did not return until 12 years later.
McKay returned to the USA in 1934 and continued to write poetry and prose addressing the plight of Africans from the continent and in the Diaspora. In the 2000 published A Fierce Hatred of Injustice: Claude McKay’s Jamaica and his poetry of rebellion author Winston James writes: “Just as McKay hated to see misery and oppression, so did he hate cruelty. His extraordinary sensitivity and aversion to suffering and cruelty were important impulses that led to his deepening radicalization over time. Class, color, gender and racial oppression in Jamaica started him on his socialist journey while, more than anything else, while the gigantic horrors of racism in the United States – especially lynching – deepened his Black nationalism.” In his first autobiography A Long Way from Home published in 1937 McKay wrote about the inspiration for his composing If we must die. At the time he wrote the poem (1919) he was working as a railroad porter one of the few jobs available to African American men. “The World War had ended. But its 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. Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted. We did not separate from one another gaily to spend ourselves in speakeasies and gambling joints. We stuck together, some of us armed, going from the railroad station to our quarters. We stayed in our quarters all through the dreary ominous nights, for we never knew what was going to happen. It was during those days that the sonnet, "If We Must Die," exploded out of me.” McKay also addressed the subject of “Belonging to a minority group” in “A Long Way from Home” as he contemplated the attitude of the White “liberals” he encountered: “It is hell to belong to a suppressed minority and outcast group. For to most members of a powerful majority, you are not a person; you are a problem. And every crusading crank imagines he knows how to solve your problem. I think I am a rebel mainly from psychological reasons, which have always been more important to me than economic. As a member of a weak minority, you are not supposed to criticize your friends of the strong majority. You will be damned mean and ungrateful. Therefore you and your group must be content with lower critical standards.”McKay is acknowledged as one of the giants of the Harlem Renaissance and his work is considered to have been a great influence on Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor and Martiniquais poet Amiee Cesaire who pioneered the Negritude Literary Movement. The term Negritude was reportedly coined by Cesaire who defined it as: “the simple recognition of the fact that one is Black, the acceptance of this fact and of our destiny as Blacks, of our history and culture.” McKay’s work also influenced African American poets including Langston Hughes who wrote the poem My People.
Although he never returned to Jamaica McKay’s second autobiography which was published posthumously in 1979 was entitled “My Green Hills Of Jamaica” where he reminisces about his childhood and youth in Jamaica. He transitioned on May 1948 while he lived in Chicago. McKay is buried in Calvary Cemetery Woodside in Queens, New York. Inscribed on his headstone are the words “Peace O My rebel heart”