If We Must Die By Claude McKay
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,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Claude McKay’s often anthologized, perfectly pitched Elizabethan sonnet reflects the sentiments of its time in more ways than one. First, its form and structure make it very much at home and acceptable to the arbiters of good taste and fine art in the waning days of the British Empire and we will return to that later so hold that thought. Further, it reflects the racial events of its time as soldiers were returning home from war in the European theatre with hopes of ‘cashing in” on their military service, only to run headlong into a vicious counterattack from whites and new immigrant groups fomenting race riots in America’s largest cities, and all this at the height of the Great Migration of rural Southern blacks seeking opportunity in the urban North.
Of far greater significance to me is the pessimistic tone that lives just beneath the surface of the poem. “If we must die” allows no other option and no redemption but death. Death is certain, as death always eventually is, and facing that eventual death is the foundation of Stoic faith, not Christian faith, mind you, but Roman Stoic faith. In that regard, I’ve always viewed this poem as a suicide note, “penned (loads of double-entendre) in an inglorious spot.”
“If we must die” would survive the Harlem Renaissance, resurrected in Great Britain during the WW2 blitz and read aloud by PM Churchill in London to the combined House of Commons and the House of Lords when it seemed all but certain that England would be overrun by Hitler’s Germany.
Personally, McKay’s celebrated sonnet sent an implied message to J. Edgar Hoover’s G-Men, who kept McKay under constant surveillance (of which he was keenly aware) both for his Communist connections and to attempt to blackmail him due to his homosexual alliances. He warned them, as he similarly called on fellow blacks, that he would always fight back and that they should as well.
Nevertheless, my father had me memorize this poem in elementary school and I have always held it close to my heart.