It seems really ironic that a poem could be both an outcry during the Harlem Renaissance and a rallying song for Winston Churchill to persuade his country to fight against the Nazis, but that is exactly what this poem was. Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” was originally written about the race riots in Harlem in 1919, and it was a call to all African American men that it was time for them to stand up for their rights. As with his poetry, McKay himself had quite an interesting life.
Born in Jamaica in 1889, he published his first book of poetry at the age of twenty. In this book called “songs of Jamaica,” he tells the reader about living the life of an average black in Jamaica. In 1912, he came to America in order to attend Tuskegee, then moves on to the University of Kansas. He flirted with communism and traveled to Europe only to find himself converting to Catholicism back in Harlem again. Dying in 1948, McKay certainly left his mark on the world. McKay’s poem “If We Must Die,” leaves a mark of his fierceness when it comes to social inequality and “bucking” the status quo. McKay makes a plea to African American men.
McKay uses many literary techniques and devices in this poem to enhance and emphasize his meaning. He uses “like hogs” in line one, which is a simile. He immediately begins with this because the reader clearly does not want to identify himself or herself with “hogs.” He is setting up the idea that black people do not want to live like animals. Therefore, they must fight for their rights. He uses apostrophe, both in lines 5 and 9. He may allude to many other injustices suffered like Harper’s Ferry or slavery.
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An extended metaphor would be the animal imagery that is carried through the poem with words like “hogs,” (line 1)“hunted, “ “penned,” (line 2) “ bark,” “mad and hungry dogs,” (line 3) “monsters,” (line 7) “cowardly pack” (line 13). A metaphor is used in line 7 with the word “monsters.” Again, McKay is making the conscience choice to evoke animal imagery because, in his mind, blacks have become animals. They have been backed into a corner like animals, and now they must choose to fight their way out.
His choice of rhetoric or diction clearly demonstrates that of the black man’s dignity and the animal imagery that dehumanizes the black man. An example of hyperbole is “If we must die, let it not be like hogs” (line 1) and “and for their thousand blows deal one death-blow” (line 11). In line 3, onomatopoeia is used with the word “bark.” A rhetorical question is used in line 12 with “What though before us lies the open grave?” This reminds the reader that death waits for all of us, so what have they really got to lose? Many of these techniques are used to create a sense of urgency in the reader.
Basically interpreting this poem is simple. It is brief but eloquent. McKay does not feel that his fellow “kinsmen” should stand around and let society or white man attack them and do nothing about it. He tells his brothers that they must fight. They need to show themselves to be brave and fight back against injustice and oppression. They must fight back against those who persecute them. McKay clearly admits that they may be outnumbered, with their backs pressed to the wall, but they will not go down without a fight. They will not be treated like animals in a pen by remaining passive; they will join together and fight. If they have been made into animals, they will fight like animals.
This poem is clearly a Shakespearean sonnet. One easy way to tell is the rhyme scheme of ababcdcdefefgg. Also the reader knows because the poem consists of 14 lines and is made up of three quatrains and a couplet, with the last rhyming couplet being the “turn.” This sonnet is also written in iambic pentameter as to stay with traditional form. The poem is clearly end-rhymed as the rhyme scheme suggests. There is repetition of the words “If we must die.”
By repeating these words McKay repeats his plea for people to fight back, not to just accept the way things are. African Americans deserve equal rights and they should get them or at least go out trying. This poem is a call to African American men to fight for their rights. He uses a quite traditional poetic form with very strict rules to talk about a non-traditional topic—African Americans standing up for their rights. It is formal structure to express a formal message, written almost like a speech or plea.
McKay’s hatred for the passive nature of black men is shown in this poem. He is calling for black men to stand up and fight against the injustices that have been done to them. He says that if they have to die, they should at least die fighting, knowing that they were fighting for their cause. Society has, in many ways, made them into animals. Instead of sitting passively by and being treated like animals, they should fight like animals. They have nothing to lose because they have no rights and in many ways are simply waiting for death.
McKay, Claude, “If We Must Die,” Retrieved October 30, 2007 at Web Site:
McKay, Claude, Retrieved October 30, 2007 at Web Site:
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