Poem #35: If We Must Die by Claude McKay

Estimated Reading Time:    minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleIf We Must Die

Claude McKay

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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!


This is a stirring poem of resistance and grace in the face of the ugly and like many of Black poets, McKay draws out the monstrosity of white culture and how for all of its claims to be civilized are so often the "dogs" and "monsters" that chase after and harm others.  

Just in the past month of poems I've read for this project, I've been fascinated by this message of resistance and honor in the face of oppression. I'm not surprised by it as it has shown up in the work of many Black artists. Rather, I'm intrigued by the idea of how often this rallying cry has been carried over the years.  How many folks must have heard these messages and used them as a source of comfort and energy to persevere?

The title itself is interesting. "If We Must Die".  While concise, it doesn't quite feel appropriate to the poem itself.  There is no "if" about dying; we all do it.  It makes me wonder if it should have been named "If We Must Be Killed" or something along those lines.  On the one hand, it is passive where as "die" is an active verb.  But realistically, it's an active verb without intention or action really.  When a person dies, death is something happening to them, they are not usually doing the act of death.  That's being a bit nitpicky and pedantic and given the poem's tone, it does make sense as McKay is talking about agency and claiming what power people have even when their backs are against the wall.  

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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