Claude McKay’s work is an authentic representation of the Harlem Renaissance and the struggles of racism and prejudice in the 1920s. The poem “If We Must Die,” written by McKay in 1919, demonstrates the theme of fighting against oppression by using the symbolism of war, and how those who are being oppressed must fight back for their rights in society. This theme is supported by literary devices used in the poem such as diction, imagery, and the overall structure, the biography of McKay and historical context of this poem, and references to McKay’s other works such as “America”.
“If We Must Die” at first glance without any context of Claude McKay and his writing could be interpreted as describing a group in war, which is seen through McKay’s use of diction and imagery. McKay uses diction to support this claim such as line 9, “O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!” where the words “kinsmen” and “foe” allude to terms of war. Another significant use of diction includes the term “accursèd”, which is defined as a strong dislike or anger towards a group. This represents the discrimination and hate the enemy put towards the group being represented in the poem. The imagery throughout the poem shows emphasis on a smaller group fighting a large enemy, and how the group must “nobly die”, despite the struggles they face. Imagery is also seen in the first two lines stating, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.” This creates imagery of warriors being killed but comparing them to animals. This imagery also represents the urge to die honorably, instead of being hunted, and that they must not die without fighting the enemy head-on. At first read, this poem also has a significant structure, such as that it contains elements to an English sonnet. This is because the poem has 14 lines and the standard rhyme scheme, however, there aren’t stanzas separated by three quatrains and a final couplet. The typical use of a sonnet would be to write to one single person, usually with a common theme of romance or resolving an issue. Using a sonnet may have been a deliberate strategy by McKay to represent unity to support the theme as the speaker is expressing words of motivation to those fighting. However, underlying the motivational chants of war in this poem is a much deeper meaning when looking into the background of Claude McKay and the era of this poem, revealing insight into who is fighting in this war.
Knowledge of Claude McKay’s impact on the Harlem Renaissance and the events following the Red Summer, post-World War I, display the deeper message behind McKay’s words of unity and fighting in the war. McKay’s biography has a great influence on his work based on the transitions in his life, including leaving Jamaica, where his African heritage was cherished, into America, where the struggle for racial equality is evident throughout society. McKay’s background and his ambitions to defending the rights of black individuals, give his words more meaning in lines that are disguised as words of war. His words in this poem reflect the underlying meaning of resistance in lines such as line 13 and 14, “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” Not only do these lines emphasize the fight against racial injustice, they give voice to anyone facing oppression as well, to win back their freedom with an honorable fight. According to a journal written by Amritjit Singh, “The poem achieved a kind of universality in spite of its trite diction”. This supports the idea that McKay’s work can be interpreted universally and not just through the struggles of solely African Americans. McKay’s initiative of displaying the struggle against oppression through war is symbolic in its time, as America was just recovering from World War I, into the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay almost at perfect timing writes this piece in order to unite African Americans in America, to not give up and to keep fighting back.
Claude McKay demonstrates this theme of fighting against oppression in another poem called “America”. Essentially, the poem alludes to the discrimination and prejudice felt within society, however, the idea of loving the land anyways comes into place. In the poem, McKay again follows the style of the English sonnet, as it has 14 lines and the rhyming scheme of a sonnet, but it conveys a much different approach than “If We Must Die”. McKay never explicitly states the word “America” except for in the title, yet personifies America as a woman, and goes on to describe their relationship. McKay illuminates the discrepancies between the violence America brings, and the love the speaker has for her. For example, line 4 states “I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.” McKay describes America in a light that the speaker essentially “coexists” with America despite its wrath that follows, which is symbolism for oppression. This poem can be compared to “If We Must Die” based on their similarities of structures and underlying themes of oppression, however, “America” is more explicit in stating the presence of prejudice. Both of these works reflect Claude McKay’s impact on fighting back to discrimination and racism in America, as they both have similar suggestions of pride through their struggles as well.
To conclude, Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” demonstrates the theme of fighting against oppression by using symbolism of war, and how those who are being oppressed must fight back for their rights in society, through using literary devices and a distinct structure, McKay’s background and the influence of the time period, and how it is similar to his other works. McKay’s work is an exemplary representation of the past events of the Harlem Renaissance and the resistance of oppression of not just African Americans, but of those in society as a whole. “If We Must Die” provides insight into this message, and McKay’s approach represents unity within those fighting a war against injustice in society.
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