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Claude McKay: If We Must Die (1919)

Updated on December 22, 2018
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With regards to structure, the poem "If We Must Die" is a sonnet that has a total of fourteen lines. In addition, the poem also has a total of three quatrains that rhyme as follows: a,b,a,b rhyme scheme in the first quatrain (hogs/dogs, spot/lot), c,d,c,d rhyme scheme in the second quatrain (die/defy, shed/dead) and e,f,e,f rhyme scheme in the third quatrain (foe/blow, brave/grave). The last two stanzas, on the other hand, take the g,g couplet rhyme ending with the words "back" and "pack"

Claude McKay


Claude McKay: The poet

In analyzing the poem, it would be important to understand who the poet (Claude McKay) was; when the poem was written as well as the events/experiences of the people at the time. According to the Poetry Foundation (2018), Claude McKay was one of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance. In most of his work, McKay gave focus to diverse topics ranging from work that highlighted and celebrated the peasant life of Jamaicans to works of poetry that challenged white authority in the United States at the time. Through his work, McKay contributed to the intellectual, social and artistic explosion that was being experienced in Harlem at the time.

Some of the other poems written by McKay include:



A memory of jane



In the poem, the McKay starts by stating that if he and his people are to die (we), then it must not be like hogs. This suggests that the "we" he is referring to in the poem are in a state of conflict with others and are most likely the oppressed group. An in-depth reading of the poem provides evidence that the "we" he is referring to is the oppressed party/group that is mocked, mistreated and even killed by the oppressors (who are greater in number). Being the minority and oppressed group surrounded by those with greater power (described as mad and hungry dogs) the author realizes that he and his people "we" are at a disadvantage and therefore unlikely to win in this conflict. Regardless, he emphasizes on the importance of fighting back and not simply submitting like hogs.

Here, it is worth noting that the poem was written in 1919 when racial tensions were on the rise as evidenced by the Red Summer of 1919 characterized by heightened attacks on African Americans by white Americans. The year also saw the revival of the KKK and its violent activities that resulted in 147 lynching between 1918 and 1919 with an African American teenager being drowned in Lake Michigan in 1919 for having gone against the unofficial segregation laws of Chicago at the time (History, 2018). The poem is, therefore, a direct response to these events by McKay, who was himself a person of color (of Jamaican descent) and opposed white authority in America at the time.

Red Summer


We the people

In the poem, "we" represents African Americans who were facing discrimination and attacks while the mad and hungry dogs are used to refer to such groups as the KKK and other white people who played a role in the oppression and discrimination of African Americans. The circumstances of African Americans are well highlighted in the poem with such phrases as "hunted and penned", "our accursed lot" and "far outnumbered" proving that they are going through a lot of difficulties and treated as lesser human beings without any rights. By using the word "kinsmen", McKay points to their connection based on their race as black people who are together facing oppression and discrimination from the whites who held more power and authority.

Rather than simply accept their fate, though it appears to be certain (What though before us lies the open grave?) (McKay, 191), and accept the ideology of African Americans leaders who called for peace and not using violence in retaliation, McKay calls for his kinsmen to fight back "We must meet the common foe!" (McKay, 1919) despite the fact that it may mean their deaths. For McKay, this is nobler and in the end, even the enemy will honor them for having died fighting for their rights.

In conclusion

The poem is, therefore, a call for African Americans, at the time, to stand up for their rights even though it meant more violence, discrimination, and oppression against them. In the poem, McKay makes an important point by reminding the reader that the people (African Americans) were already being discriminated against and being killed like hogs. Given that they were going through all these experiences and were already being murdered like animals, he notes that they had little to lose and more to gain by fighting back rather than simply accepting their current state. Rather than simply dying like hogs, they could fight nobly and would gain honor at the end given that they did not simply submit to the enemy. In the process, they would not have died in vain. Rather, they would have left a legacy behind that they were not simply willing to continue living in their state and were willing to continue fighting regardless of what it cost.


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