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If We Must Die

If We Must Die

'If We Must Die' (1919) by George McKay projects a rallying cry to the black community in America, his 'kinsmen', encouraging them to maintain their strength when faced with discrimination.

Content warning: the following text contextualises the lived experiences of African American communities in the United States of America during the 1920s. Discriminatory social attitudes and violent acts toward people of colour are discussed.

Summary of ‘If We Must Die' (1919) by Claude McKay

Before we read and analyse 'If We Must Die', let's take a look at the poem's key features.

Written in

1919

Written by

Claude McKay

Form

Shakespearean Sonnet

Meter

Iambic pentameter

Rhyme scheme

ABAB CDCD EFEF GG

Poetic devices

Repetition

Simile

Metaphor

Rhetorical questions

Enjambment

Frequently noted imagery

Glory

Unity

Tone

Confident

Key themes

Conflict

Oppression

Meaning

The poem is a rallying cry, encouraging the oppressed to stand up and fight against the oppressor.

Context of ‘If We Must Die'

Claude McKay was a Jamaican poet during the early 20th century. He is best known for his contribution to the Harlem Renaissance.

Harlem Renaissance: A literary and art movement that emerged in the late 1910s and continued until the late 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance was a celebration of African American culture and heritage, seeking to back and reconceptualise the identity of African Americans.

McKay was born in 1889 and raised by parents of Ashanti and Malagasy descent. As a child, he developed an interest in English poetry and philosophy, which he studied with an Englishman called Walter Jekyll. McKay continued his education at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, USA and Kansas State University. He published his first book of poetry titled Songs of Jamaica (1912) during his studies. It was written in the Jamaican dialect.

McKay continued to write and publish poetry after completing his studies. The majority of his work expressed various social and political experiences from his perspective as a black man. 'If We Must Die' was published in 1919 in the Liberator magazine and became well-known for speaking out against racial prejudice. Nine years later, in 1928, McKay published his most well-known novel, Home to Harlem.

McKay died on May 22nd, 1948.

'If We Must Die' by Claude McKay analysis

'If We Must Die' is one of McKay's most famous poems. The poem is written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet. However, its contents are not what we would traditionally expect from this form associated with romance.

Before looking over our analysis, read 'If We Must Die' and consider the tone of the poem and the imagery it evokes:

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!

Shakespearean sonnet: A poem consisting of fourteen lines, divided into three quatrains and a couplet. Shakespearean sonnets follow an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme and are written in iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter: A type of meter consisting of five iambs per line. An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

The title

The title of the poem instantly creates a sense of unity through the pronoun 'we'. McKay groups together the readers of the poem through this collective pronoun, contributing to the poem's overall message; for the reader and the black community to stand up against discrimination and fight together.

The phrase 'must die' in the title creates a sense of urgency and danger through the modal verb 'must' and the negative associations of the verb 'die'. There is a sense that the situation the narrator and reader find themselves in is unavoidable, and the only choice they have is to fight.

'If We Must Die' was written in response to the Red Summer of 1919. During this time, multiple white supremacist attacks and anti-black riots took place across the United States. McKay isn't referring to a general social attitude or vague concept in this poem; he is discussing a very real and troubling time period for African Americans.

Although the Red Summer was dominated by attacks by White Americans on African Americans, there were instances of African Americans fighting back - which is what McKay is calling for in his poem. For instance, the Chicago and Washington D.C. race riots.

One of the most notable events during the Red Summer was the Elaine massacre which took place between September 30th and October 1st 1919. The massacre occurred in Elaine, Arkansas, and an estimated 100 to 240 African Americans were killed.

How does this historical context influence your interpretation of the poem?

Form and structure

The poem is written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, and an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. This form is traditionally associated with romantic poetry. However, the subject matter of McKay's poem subverts the expectations of the form by focusing on violence. The contrast between the subject matter and the form of the poem highlights the brutality faced by African Americans.

A volta is used in the poem after the first eight lines. Traditionally, the volta in a Shakespearean sonnet is placed after the first fourteen lines, while the volta in a Petrarchan sonnet is placed after the first eight lines. In 'If We Must Die', the first eight lines focus on the strength the readers should hold onto as they 'must die', while the final six lines act as a rallying cry to fight back.

Volta: A turning point in a sonnet.

Petrarchan sonnet: A form of sonnet consisting of fourteen lines divided into an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). This sonnet form follows an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme during the first eight lines and a CDCDCD or CDECDE rhyme scheme during the final six lines.

Tone

'If We Must Die' has a strong, confident tone. The poem is a rallying cry, encouraging the reader to stand strong and fight against the oppressor. This tone is apparent in the poem's structure - the use of a consistent rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter creates a strong, continuous rhythm, indicating that the poem and its contents are well thought out.

The tone is further developed by McKay's use of exclamative;

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

These two exclamative sentences imply that the narrator is shouting out the lines to the reader in an upbeat manner. The energy behind the exclamative contributes to the confident and strong nature of the poem's tone. Additionally, the language used in these sentences creates a sense of collective unity; 'kinsmen' and 'common foe'. This sense of collective unity indicates that the narrator intends to gather the reader together and encourage them to join the fight, hence why the poem can be considered to be a rallying cry.

'If We Must Die' poetic devices

A number of poetic devices are used in 'If We Must Die' to contribute to the poem's overall meaning and tone.

Repetition

McKay utilises repetition to emphasise the dire situation the narrator is in. 'If we must die' is repeated twice within the poem, alongside being the poem's title, indicating the limited choice the narrator feels they have. Death takes centre stage through the repetition of this phrase. The use of the modal verb 'must' develops this by suggesting there is no other option. 'Must' indicates that the narrator can either fight and die or not fight and die.

Alliteration

Alliteration is used three times in the poem; 'Making their mock', 'must meet', and perhaps McKay's most effective use of alliteration;

thousand blows deal one death-blow

Here, the alliteration of the plosive 'b' and 'd' sounds produces a harsh and blunt tone, emphasising the brutality the reader has faced. Additionally, the blunt sound produced by the use of plosives could resemble the sound of a punch or blow, contributing to the brutal imagery.

Plosive: A consonant sound created by suddenly releasing air after stopping the airflow, these sounds include; 't', 'k', 'p', 'g', 'd', and 'b'.

Simile

Metaphorical language dominates the poem; however, McKay makes use of similes at the poem's opening and close. At the opening, McKay states:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs

This simile compares the reader to 'hogs', evoking animalistic imagery. This animalistic imagery implies that the reader is less than human or is perceived as less than human by their oppressor.

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

By contrast, at the poem's close, the narrator compares the reader to 'men', opposing the animalistic imagery in the first simile. Here, the narrator regains their humanity, indicating that McKay believes that by fighting back, he and the readers can obtain some dignity and glory against their oppressors.

These two contrasting similes contribute to the idea that the poem is a rallying cry, as McKay utilises these similes to encourage the reader to join the fight by implying that in doing so, they can regain some humanity.

Enjambment

While the poem has a regular structure and rhyme scheme, enjambment is used on occasion to great effect. Due to the poem's regular rhyme and meter, the enjambment noticeably interrupts the poem's rhythm. For instance:

So that our precious blood may not be shed

In vain; then even the monsters we defy

Here, the enjambment creates a pause before 'In vain', emphasising this part of the sentence. This emphasis could indicate McKay's determination for him and the reader to not die in vain and, instead, fight against the oppression faced.

Additionally, the pause before 'In vain' adds emotion to the line, as though McKay is pausing to collect himself as he discusses the shedding of 'precious blood'.

Enjambment: When a sentence continues from one line of verse onto the next.

Rhetorical Question

McKay uses one rhetorical question in the poem. This rhetorical question contributes to the confident tone of the poem, as McKay directly addresses the reader by asking;

What though before us lies the open grave?

By using a rhetorical question, McKay engages the reader through direct address. Not only does McKay address the reader by asking them a question, but he also encourages them to think about what he has asked. In doing so, McKay pushes the reader to consider joining his fight as they become engaged in his own thoughts and reasoning.

This use of a direct address is a persuasive technique often found in speeches.

By utilising such a technique in his poem, McKay develops the sense that 'If We Must Die' is a rallying cry to the oppressed, calling for them to fight against their oppressors.

‘If We Must Die' figurative language

Figurative language is used throughout the poem as part of its imagery. An extended metaphor of a hunt suggests the collective audience the narrator is addressing is being persecuted by their foe and needs to fight against them.

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is described as if it is another. An extended metaphor is a metaphor that extends across a larger section of text.

A semantic field of hunting is produced through McKay's linguistic choices; 'hunted and penned', 'hungry dogs', and 'cowardly pack'. This evokes the image of the audience as a persecuted fox or deer, running from the 'cowardly pack'. There is a suggestion that the pack mentality of the oppressor makes them cowardly, as they are picking on individuals and already oppressed groups.

The imagery of a hunt develops throughout the poem. Initially, the oppressed group is described as 'hunted' 'hogs' under attack from other 'animals'. As the poem progresses, the animals persecuting the oppressed group develop into 'monsters' and a 'murderous cowardly pack' while the oppressed become 'men'. The development of this imagery emphasises the cruelty of the oppressor in their continued persecution.

Semantic field: a collection of lexically related terms.

Other Imagery

The hunt is not McKay's only use of imagery in the poem; his language choices also evoke images of glory and unity.

Glory

As the poem is a rallying cry to battle, there is plenty of imagery associated with the glory of conflict, even in death. This imagery associated with glory is evident at the poem's close, for instance;

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

The juxtaposition between the narrator and reader being 'outnumbered' by a 'thousand blows' and them also being 'brave' and dealing 'one death-blow' produces a sense of glory around their victory. Against limited odds, the narrator is able to 'deal one death-blow!'.

Unity

A sense of unity is created by McKay's use of collective pronouns, most notably 'we' and 'us'. The use of these pronouns throughout the poem highlights how McKay is rallying his audience to band together and fight back as a group. This is developed by him referring to the enemy as;

common foe!

The adjective 'common' suggests that this enemy unites McKay's audience; it is something they all know and can fight against.

‘If We Must Die' poem themes

The imagery of the hunt, glory, and unity contributes to the themes present throughout the poem, most notably conflict and oppression.

Before you read on, consider how you think these themes are presented in the poem.

Conflict

'If We Must Die' presents a conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed. Throughout the poem, McKay uses language associated with death and violence; 'die', 'blood', 'constrained', 'blows', 'murderous' and 'fighting'. These linguistic choices highlight how conflict is present as a theme throughout the poem and contributes to a war-like narrative.

The narrative of the poem is similar to that of a rallying cry to battle in the context of war. This is demonstrated by McKay's use of a Shakespearean sonnet divided into three quatrains and a couplet. The first two quatrains focus on the oppression the narrator has suffered, while the final quatrain and couplet command the reader to join the narrator and others in the fight against the oppressors.

The first and second quatrain open with 'If we must die', creating a sense of danger. These two quatrains both focus on how the narrator and reader should not die in an 'inglorious' manner. The third quatrain acts as a battle cry, commanding the reader to 'meet the common foe'. This battle cry relies on the imagery of suffering and oppression in the first two quatrains, which push the reader to want to fight. Finally, a couplet closes the poem;

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

This couplet continues the narrative of the third quatrain, pushing the reader to 'face the murderous, cowardly pack' and fight back, encapsulating the conflict present throughout the poem.

Oppression

Oppression is present both in the poem and in its social context. As we've discussed, McKay wrote 'If We Must Die' in response to the Red Summer of 1919. The poem's socio-political context highlights how oppression is at the centre of the poem's narrative and meaning.

The theme is developed throughout the poem by McKay's linguistic choices. For instance;

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Here, the verbs 'hunted and penned' create a sense of being trapped, unable to escape. Additionally, the adjective 'inglorious' underpins the shameful nature of the oppressor's actions and how the narrator feels stripped of their honour and dignity.

By metaphorically describing the oppressors as 'mad and hungry dogs', McKay highlights the danger of the oppressor and the extent of their attack on them. They are enraged and hungry for violence, reflecting the violent acts that took place during the Red Summer. These linguistic choices place oppressive acts at the centre of the poem and demonstrate why the narrator and oppressed group may find it challenging to fight back.

If We Must Die - Key takeaways

  • 'If We Must Die' is a poem by Claude McKay written in 1919 in response to the Red Summer.
  • The poem is written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines in a single stanza, an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme, and iambic pentameter.
  • McKay repeats the poem's title ('If We Must Die') twice in the poem, creating the sense that the poem is acting as a rallying cry to the oppressed, encouraging them to fight.
  • Figurative language is used throughout the poem, creating imagery of hunting, glory, and unity.
  • Conflict and oppression are two key themes within the poem.

Frequently Asked Questions about If We Must Die

'If We Must Die' is a rallying cry to oppressed African Americans, encouraging them to stand-up and fight against those who are oppressing them. 

In line four of the poem, McKay writes 'Making their mock at our accursèd lot'. The alliteration of 'm' creates a harsh sound, indicating that the narrator is frustrated by the oppression they face.

McKay wrote the poem in response to the Red Summer, in which multiple attacks on African Americans and race riots occurred. In the poem, McKay encourages African Americans to stand up and fight back against this oppression. 

Numerous poetic devices are used in 'If We Must Die', including repetition, alliteration and enjambment. 

The poem is about standing up against those who oppress you and fighting back. There is an implication in the poem that it is better to die fighting than die doing nothing at all.

Final If We Must Die Quiz

Question

When was 'If We Must Die' published?

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Answer

1919

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Question

Which political event did McKay write 'If We Must Die' about?

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Answer

The Red Summer of 1919.

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Question

What was the Red Summer?

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Answer

A period of time in 1919 when multiple white supremacist attacks and anti-black riots took place across the United States.

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Question

Based on the historical context of 'If We Must Die' which oppressed group is McKay referring to?

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Answer

African Americans

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Question

True or false: 'If We Must Die' is written in the form of a Petrarchan Sonnet.

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Answer

False

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Question

What is the tone of 'If We Must Die'?

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Answer

Confident 

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Question

Which of these poetic devices don't contribute to the tone of 'If We Must Die'?

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Answer

Regular rhyme 

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Question

Which phrase is repeated in 'If We Must Die'? 

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Answer

'If we must die' is repeated twice in the poem.

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Question

What technique is this an example of?


'thousand blows deal one death-blow'

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Answer

Plosive alliteration 

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Question

Why does McKay use a simile at the opening and close of the poem?

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Answer

At the poem's opening McKay compares the reader to a 'hog', by contrast, at the close he compares the reader to 'men'. This implies that by fighting back against the oppressor the narrator can take back their humanity. 

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Question

What technique is used here?


'What though before us lies the open grave?'

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Answer

Rhetorical question 

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Question

What is the effect of enjambment in the poem?

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Answer

The enjambment contrasts with the poem's regular rhyme and meter, fragmenting the rhythm.

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Question

Which of these is not an example of imagery in 'If We Must Die'?

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Answer

Heaven and hell

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Question

What are the two key themes in 'If We Must Die'?

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Answer

Conflict and oppression.

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Question

What semantic field contributes to the theme of conflict?

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Answer

Death and violence

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