By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
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 honour 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 Liberator magazine.
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 brother, Uriah Theophilus McKay, who was a school teacher. Between the ages of 17 and 22 (when he immigrated to the U.S.), 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 collections of poems written in the Jamaican language.
That same year (1912) McKay immigrated to the U.S. 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 U.S.
The rabid racism he encountered in the southern U.S., 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 U.S. 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, D.C. 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 U.S. 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.
McKay returned to the U.S. in 1934 and continued to write poetry and prose addressing the plight of Africans from the continent and in the Diaspora.
In the book “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, colour, 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 labour and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between coloured folk and white. Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between coloured 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 Martinique 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 22, 1948 while he lived in Chicago. McKay is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, New York. Inscribed on his headstone are the words: “Peace, O My Rebel Heart”.