“If we must die” by Claude McKay was written, in 1919. During the time when the poem was written the African American communities were being attacked by mobs of white Americans. There was so much violence across the country that summer that it was called the red summer. The author wrote this poem almost like a rallying cry to his fellow African Americans. During this poem the author shed light on what it must of been like to be on the receiving end of one of these mob attacks. He was trying to bring the country’s attention to what was happening to their fellow Americans. The poem is about standing up and fighting for what is good and right even if means you make the ultimate sacrifice. The poet uses several literary devices and techniques in this poem, they are rhyming, repetition and metaphors.
The rhyming scheme is ABABCDCDEFEFGG, which helps create balance and rhythm in the poem. The device of repetition is used with the repetition of the phrase “if we must die”, he uses this device to call attention to the line emphasizing the importance of the phrase. The poets use of metaphors appeals directly to the senses and imagination of his readers, we can see in our minds what he is describing. The poem only consists of 14 lines, but the author imparts a powerful message in a short poem. The first line of the poem”if we must die” seems to be suggesting by the wording “if” that we have a choice in whether to die or not. The author is actually telling us that the choice we have is not if, but how we die. The poet uses dogs and hogs as a metaphor for their current situation they are being “ hunted and penned” like hogs going to the slaughterhouse. He does this to show how African Americans were hunted and penned like hogs all the while the whites gathered around them like hungry dogs mocking and taunting them.
The messages speak louder in lines five through eight. It starts off with “if we must die” for emphasis, but the rest of the lines are what really connects it to the theme. It refers to dying a noble death and not letting our blood be shed in vain. “Then even the monsters we defy shall be constrained to honor us though dead” speaks to the point that even the enemy will have to respect them because they fought for what they believed in. That a noble cause is worth dying for and that they will be remembered as hero’s fighting for a worthy and honorable cause. The poet like many from this time period used his poems to get his message out. We see this when the poet says “O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!” He is referring to his fellow African Americans and that they must all face their common enemy head on. That united they can overcome any obstacle.
Stand up and fight even if they are outnumbered is the theme throughout the poem. Even when outnumbered for all the hits they have taken all it takes is one hit to deliver a death blow to their enemy. That being outnumbered we are faced with the fact that it is not about if we die but rather on how we want to die. Do we want to die cowering and hunted like animals or do we want to die with dignity fighting for something we believe in? The author uses the metaphor of an open grave as a reference to death. He uses the open grave to emphasize that the battle that they are facing will be a battle to the death but they should not be deterred from their noble and honorable fight. That even though they are outnumbered that they will face their foes like men not giving up even though the odds are against the. Even though they face almost certain death he asks them to meet their fate bravely and with honor.
In conclusion, the author wrote this poem to tell his fellow African Americans to stand up and fight for what they believe in even if that fight would end with their deaths. That their sacrifice would not be in vain. That their courage and dignity would be remembered. We can all take this message to heart. We all die eventually. The question to ask is, when we die will we look back and see a life of honor and courage? Will we have lived a life fighting or standing up for what we believe in?