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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Poem Analysis of “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay

“If We Must Die” by Claude McKay was first published in the Liberator in the summer of 1919, was republished in Harlem Shadows in 1922.  and in dozens of African American journals throughout the 1920s. This sonnet alerted African Americans to protect themselves in an honorable manner during the turmoils that pervaded after the First World War. This period in history is labeled as “The Red Summer” by Harlem Renaissance writer, James Weldon Johnson. At that time, 38 major race riots sprang up in different areas of the United States. A significant number of black men, women, and children were massacred out of racism and paranoia between May and October of that year.

McKay chose to convey a non-traditional topic of African-American rights through a Shakespearean sonnet, a very traditional structure with its rhyming scheme of ababcdcdefefgg. He also uses alliteration approximately four times in his sonnet in phrases like “making their mock” and “deal one deathblow.” He also uses animal imagery such as “hunted and penned hogs” and “mad and hungry dogs” in describing a merciless and inhuman oppressor. This gives an impression to the reader that black people should fight like animals rather than just passively sit around in response to being treated like animals by the oppressor. The “open grave” is a better option over inhumane conditions.

McKay urges his “kinsmen” to take action for the injustices being done to them by racist Americans. He also pinpointed that they may be a minority, with their backs pressed to the wall, but they will not die without putting up a good fight. He also tells the reader that the oppressor's mockery must be resisted viciously. He wrote the phrase “if we must die” twice in the poem to instill in the reader's mind to take immediate action in fighting back.

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This poem may be brief but it pierces through the very heart of readers. It was a rallying piece written for oppressed African-Americans during the Harlem Renaissance in the early part of the 20th Century but contains a universal appeal of courageous resistance since it was also used by Sir Winston Churchill to motivate Allied Soldiers against Hitler. It still remains to be one of the most anthologized of all modern poems. There is no internal evidence that the poem is about race. Readers who have no idea about the writer or the poem's background can associate it with different types of conflict and resistance. It also shows McKay's own viewpoints towards oppression and injustice. It is through an unwavering sense of commitment and militancy that can overpower one's oppressors.

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