Claude McKay was a Jamaican writer and poet. Born in 1889, he became one of the prolific figures of the Harlem Reinassance. He not only documented life as a Jamaican but also challenged white supremacy in America.
One of McKay’s popular poems is If We Must Die, a verse that still rings true even today. Published first by Eastman’s magazine, the poem defended the rights of black people and even hints at a retaliation. But importantly, it calls for the unity of Black people in understanding their common struggles and rising above the injustices and violations of their rights.
About writing poem, McKay said:
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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.
Although written in 1919, the poem is still as relevant today as it were then.
If We Must Die
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.
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,
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