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If We Must Die Poem as a Reflection of Life of Black Americans

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Claude McKay – If We Must Die

The Harlem Renaissance was a time of new innovation and creation of music, literature, and history for black citizens. Unfortunately the Harlem Renaissance occurred during an inconvenient time in history. The works reflecting from Harlem Renaissance was poetic work that depicted the shadows and the harsh livings of black life. The early 20th century was still ridiculed and plagued with racism and unequal opportunities for black citizens. Claude McKay, a famous poet of that time, was one of the many poets who wrote of the harsh lives in Harlem who portrayed the racism bestowed on black Americans through his writings using symbolism and intricately placed words. Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” reflects how black Americans were oppressed during the Harlem Renaissance.

In the first four lines of the poem, McKay reflects how black Americans were oppressed during the Harlem Renaissance. In line one, the narrator speaks, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs/” The speaker of the poem is making a statement to his or her audience that they are somehow going to die, but it’s a matter of how they are going to die. Since they are going to die, the speaker announces that the way they must die is not like hogs. Hogs are swine, pigs that are usually referenced to in a matter of disgust. Black Americans, in this time, were of almost the same level of disgraced hogs when in comparison to white people. In line two, the speaker continues with the wild hog reference with “Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.” This line is speaking now that the hogs are now being confined to a disgraceful place. This relates to McKay stating how black life was oppressed in the 20th century because white people had felt that the black citizens of America were below them. The last two lines, three and four, finish off the first set of lines that flow with the hog reference; “While around us bark the mad and hungry dogs//Making their mock at our accursed lot.” The speaker has now identified the enemy as vicious dogs, a reference to the white race. The speaker as unified with the audience when stating that they are all surrounded by and being pinned by these vicious figurative dogs. Black citizens, for generations have been mocked at, tortured, and taunted. Since being freed from slavery, black people have never been shown respect as actual people, hence “making [their] mock” at their bestowed place in life. “Among other things, the post-war years saw a spectacular revival of racism; the new Ku Klux Klan found white support throughout the country, and the violence against Negroes increased.” (Huggins, 56). The “hungry dogs” are a reference to the white men who corner and humiliate the black Americans in such disgrace and vileness. This is a fight where “The New Negro would no longer “turn the other cheek,” be modest and unassuming. He would answer to violence with violence rather than with meek though moral protests and requests for justice.” (Huggins, 53).

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In lines five through eight, the poem, “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay reflects how black Americans were oppressed during the Harlem Renaissance. Lines one through four was the first part of the poem that stated who the protagonist and antagonist were. Now lines five through eight describe the protagonists as more of underdogs. Line five repeats line one, “If we must die, O let us nobly die//” This repetition states once again that the narrator accepts that they must die, but it will not be like hogs, as stated in line one as well. Instead of like hogs, the speaker declares that they should die nobly. Being noble and courageous are characteristics of the heroic type, the underdog stereotype. The speaker is now calling to arms to the rest of the community to fight back courageously against their vicious canine-like fiends, the white supremacy. The speaker then continues on to speak how he does not want their “Precious blood to be shed// In vain;” (McKay, line 6). This is referring to how the narrator does not want these deaths to be meaningless; that their blood is as precious as a white mans’ thinks his is. “then even the monsters we defy,// Shall be constrained to honor us through dead!” (McKay, lines 7 & 8). These lines are saying that since they fought so hard, even though they lost, their death will be honorable by the now monstrous “White Americans [that] had held themselves up…as the creators of the world’s most advanced civilization.” (Corbould, 59). The exclamation punctuating line eight is showing how in-depth of an emotional speech the speaker is now giving to his audience since “They had made their contribution as military men, they had served their nation, and now they would insist on being treated like full citizens.” (Huggins, 54).

In lines nine through twelve, McKay’s poem, “If We Must Die” reflects on black oppression during the Harlem Renaissance. “O Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!//Though outnumbered let us show us brave,//And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!//What though before us lies the open grave?” (Mckay, lines 9-12). The speaker is once again unified with the audience as the narrator refers to the audience as kinsmen, or relative. “The New Negro’s race consciousness and racial cooperation were clear indications that his time had come to be a race, to be free and self-assertive.” (Huggins, 59). Meeting the “common foe” is the everyday racism and violence they have endured with. There were many ways to meet this common foe, whether it was protesting for rights or “[using] “physical action in self-defense”.” (Huggins, 53).These lines are the climax of the poem, portraying the figurative fight. The speaker is still expecting to lose the battle, stating so clearly in line twelve with “What though before us lies the open grave?” The speaker feels the need to inform that the blood that will be shed will not being meaningless but brave and courageous-this referring to black men and women standing up for themselves, no matter the consequence, will be noble.

The poem then finishes with lines thirteen and fourteen with, “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,//Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” The symbolism used in the last two lines of McKay’s poem, If We Must Die, depicts black oppression during the Harlem Renaissance. The speaker is pointing out that the protagonists are “men” and the antagonists are the “murderous, cowardly pack”. The murderous and cowardly pack could be a reference to the KKK as “…Klan violence in the 1920’s marked the Ku Klux Klan as sinister and extremist.” (Pegram, 6). Even though the speaker and the unified community are now pinned like hogs and dying, they are giving all what’s left of them in one last battle and that’s what makes those “men” noble and die in a justified peace. “[The Negroes] willingness to fight showed that the New Negro was as anxious to “make America safe for himself”…” (Huggins, 53).

Claude McKay was a glorious writer who, like many authors, portrayed the darkness of living as a black citizen living in America in the early 20th century. Harlem was considered a safe haven for black citizens as “…it brought together black men of the most diverse backgrounds and interests.” (Huggins, 58). He showed by using intricate words and symbolization that black life was still fairly oppressed by white citizens who thought they were truly superior to them. Although the poem was written in response to the Red Summer of 1919 with all its rioting, the poem still portrays the fight and the struggle for equality among all black citizens. The message wasn’t only directed towards the north, but to all of the black community in the United States. McKay’s poem, If We Must Die, reflects how black Americans were oppressed during the Harlem Renaissance.

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