A Summary and Analysis of Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’

‘If We Must Die’ is a poem by Claude McKay (1889-1948), a Jamaican-American poet who is often regarded as the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The poem was originally published in The Liberator magazine in 1919, and was reprinted in McKay’s 1922 collection, Harlem Shadows, which arose from McKay’s urge to place ‘If We Must Die’, as he put it, ‘inside of a book.’

Let’s go through ‘If We Must Die’ slowly before analysing the poem’s meaning and significance.

‘If We Must Die’: context and background

Claude McKay wrote ‘If We Must Die’ in response to mob attacks by white Americans upon African-American communities during an event that became known as the Red Summer. This term was coined by the civil rights activist and author James Weldon Johnson, who organised peaceful protests in response to the racial attacks which took place in a number of cities in the US, as well as in rural Arkansas.

Indeed, the Red Summer was noteworthy because it was the first time African Americans organised a pushback against the racial violence directed at them. It was reported that some 51 African Americans were lynched or burnt to death by white supremacist mobs during the course of the Red Summer.

‘If We Must Die’: summary

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.

Claude McKay begins his poem by talking about Black Americans using the collective pronoun ‘we’. He acknowledges that they are under attack from white supremacists and they can either meekly accept being murdered, or they can fight back, possibly giving their lives in the struggle, but at least this way they will be dying courageously defending themselves.

So, if we must die, he says, then it should not be in such an undignified and brutal manner, which treats Black Americans as little more than pigs (‘hogs’) being hounded and chased by dogs. Instead, they should do what pigs are unable to do, and fight back against their attackers.

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!

If death is to be the fate of Black Americans, McKay continues, then their deaths should be noble and dignified. Dying a noble death at least serves some purpose, and means the sacrifices made would not be in vain. Even the white supremacist and racist ‘monsters’ responsible for these attacks would then be forced (however grudgingly) to respect the fallen Black Americans for the noble manner of their deaths.

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?

McKay now moves to rouse his fellow Black Americans to action, calling upon them as his ‘kinsmen’ or relatives. They must unite against the ‘common foe’, the white supremacists who are attacking them. Although Black Americans are the minority, they can at least meet their enemy in a brave and courageous manner.

The ‘thousand blows’ or attacks launched by their white attackers must be met with ‘one death-blow’. This part is ambiguous: does McKay intend a resounding blow that will kill the racial hatred and put an end to the violence against Black Americans, or the death of just one of their white assailants? This is open to interpretation and analysis.

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

McKay concludes his poem by stating that they will stand and confront their ‘cowardly’ enemies, whom he likens to a ‘pack’ of wolves – recalling the ‘dogs’ reference from the third line of the poem. Even if they are forced back against the wall, and dying, they will fight back against their attackers.

‘If We Must Die’: analysis

Claude McKay’s poem is arguably the inaugural work of the literary movement that would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. Unlike earlier poems written by and about Black Americans, and reflecting their plight, ‘If We Must Die’ does not seek to rouse sympathy among white readers.

Instead, as the ‘we’ in the poem’s title and opening line makes clear, McKay is addressing his fellow ‘kinsmen’, other Black Americans, and performing an act of self-assertion. The poem is a rousing call for African Americans to defend themselves against the onslaught of racial violence that had erupted in the first half of 1919.

Nevertheless, despite the very specific context of the Red Summer which inspired McKay to write the poem, ‘If We Must Die’ is noteworthy for the lack of specific details tying it to the events of 1919. The ‘we’ can be read more broadly as any persecuted people, much as the ‘monsters’ and ‘foe’ they face could be any oppressor or attacker.


‘If We Must Die’: form

‘If We Must Die’ is an example of a sonnet: Claude McKay’s preferred verse form. This marks his poem out (and much of his poetry as a whole) as different from much later Harlem Renaissance poetry, such as Langston Hughes’ jazz-influenced free-verse lyrics. The tight, fourteen-line form McKay chooses to use focuses his passion and sense of injustice into a narrow plot and this only increases its power, like a burst of concentrated but controlled anger.

Specifically, ‘If We Must Die’ is an example of an English or Shakespearean sonnet, rhymed abab cdcd efef gg. In the analysis above, we have divided the poem up into these four units – three quatrains or four-line units, plus a concluding rhyming couplet – and you’ll notice that McKay’s poetic syntax lends the poem natural pauses or breaks at these points in the poem.

It is also worth noting the ingenuity of some of the rhymes. The first four lines end with the words ‘hogs’, ‘spot’, ‘dogs’, and ‘lot’, where each of the four words contains the same vowel sound, the flat ‘o’ sound. This brings the a and b rhymes in closer and creates a claustrophobic effect.

Similarly, consider the second quatrain:

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!

Note the way ‘die’ is rhymed with ‘defy’, with the latter being a broadening out of the former, but also defying its meaning: McKay is calling upon his fellow Black Americans not to accept death meekly but to defy those who would seek to kill them.

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