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Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”

Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die.” Claude McKay, born in Jamaica in 1890, and considered by many to be the first intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance, moved to New York in 1915 to join the burgeoning literary scene. As a result of a summer of race riots in 1919, McKay penned what is designated as his most important literary contribution: “If We Must Die.” Because of the revolutionary yet universal nature and tone of the poem, much literary criticism has been rendered to show further how the sonnet continues to be transfigured in socio-political, literary, and historical contexts.

CRITICAL BIBLIOGRAPHY. Summary of Material. The volume of material to be found on McKay’s “If We Must Die” is vast. However, regarding the specific thesis of this paper, the information is limited. This is perhaps due to the lack of specific insights into the affects of the work within the context of women’s issues and the absence of any research on how the work was received in the white literary circles of the time. Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” considered by many to be the “inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance,” speaks to the traditional ideal of black masculinity while simultaneously demonstrating the tension between racial and gendered utterances.

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Women’s suffrage was in its infancy, and the literary world’s regard for Black or ethnic literature was almost non-existent. The racial climate in America was gauged by a lynch-mob mentality and morally corrupt legislation. As a result, black literature was a distant afterthought in literary circles, thus making the relevance of the Harlem Renaissance that much more important and its participant’s future literary giants. “If We Must Die” is, at face value, a product of its time, but more importantly, its universality and protest speech will help to sustain its importance in the future of literary criticism.

II. History of the Criticism of the Work. There have been several different critical approaches to this particular poem. However, the dominant approach or analysis is exegetical in nature.1 For example, after Sir Winston Churchill used McKay’s “If We Must Die” in a speech before the House of Commons during World War II, there was a firestorm of literary intrigue surrounding the works of McKay. One of the first critics to give proper attention to McKay was M. B. Tolson, an American poet, journalist, and dramatist. He noted that McKay saw poetry as being “… urged out of my blood (Tolson 318).” McKay would later say his poetry: “I have never regarded myself as a ‘Negro’ poet.

I have always felt that my gift of song was something bigger than the narrow limits of any people and its problems (318).” However, McKay’s sonnet is as expressive a verse as possible; the poem’s predominant critical analyses are not. This is perhaps because of the form that McKay chooses to use to convey such revolutionary thought. Traditionally, the sonnet is a verse reserved for romantic thought. McKay’s use of the form revolutionizes the sonnet. Early critics of the work were intrigued by McKay’s use of the sonnet and saw it as being as revolutionary as the language and tone of the poem.

After 1954, and the renewed interest in McKay’s work, “If We Must Die” became the benchmark by which most of the protest poetry (and poetry for that matter) of its time period was judged. This new critical look at the Harlem Renaissance enabled future critics to focus on the more universal implications that the Black writers had on the American literary canon. In the 1970s, the critical emphasis toward the poem changed once again. It came from a most unlikely incident: the Attica Prison uprising. In its long cover story on Attica, Time Magazine reported: “They passed around clandestine writings of their own; among them was a poem written by an unknown prisoner, crude but touching in its would-be heroic style (Burke 25).”

This was followed by four lines of “If We Must Die.” This blatant oversight so angered the Black literary community that several prominent Black literary figures wrote letters of protest to Time Magazine. Virginia Burke lambasted Time and was one of the first critics to call for an extensive reexamination of McKay and the Harlem Renaissance and its teaching in the American public school system. She, along with Gwendolyn Brooks, argued that if Time could make such a mistake, it must be due to ignorance that could be found on the public school level.

So, there was a push in literary circles to find a place for Black literature within the American canon; and reach beyond the known writers such as Hughes, Wright, and Johnson. Today the criticism of McKay’s sonnet is more concerned with its political correctness (as relates to gender universality) and its racial implications. The work seems to fluctuate in its importance. With the current disregard for a classical form that is pervasive in Black poetry, the poem’s influence has fallen.

Abstract. Gloster, Hugh M. “Fiction of the Negro Renascence: The Van Vechten Vogue.” Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1948. Gloster’s discussion of McKay’s works concludes that he capitalized on the sex, exaggeration, and libertinism that was first utilized by Carl Van Vechten in his novel Nigger Heaven. Bronz, Stephen H. Roots of Negro Consciousness, The 1920s: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors. New York: Libra, 1964. Discussion of the major events in McKay’s life and an analysis of their effect on his work.

Bronz traces McKay’s poetry, fiction, and prose within the context of his life: his Jamaican heritage; his immigration to the United States; his reaction to American racism; his expatriate years in Russia, Europe, and Northern Africa; and his eventual return to America as a forgotten writer. Keller, James R. “‘ A Chafing Savage, Down the Decent Street:’ The Politics of Compromise in Claude McKay’s Protest Sonnets.” African American Review Aug. 1994: The contrast between form and content in McKay’s Protest sonnets. The author sheds light on the fact that McKay uses the Romantic Sonnet to express revolutionary ideas.

Sources, Influences, and Reputation of the Work. McKay understood that image was important to Black Americans, so he projected an image of fearless Black masculinity. He viewed Black people as living in a white world. When he considered that the Black man sees white cultural images projected upon the whole extent of his universe, he could not help but realize that the Black male sees a zero image of himself a very great deal of the time. McKay’s thinking resulted from the white racial projection of its own best image upon the universe. Concomitant with that projection for several hundred years, the moral and aesthetic associations of Black and white have been mixed up with race (26).

Carolyn F. Gerald, in the January 1969 edition of the Negro Digest, states: “We realize now that we are involved in a Black-white war over the control of the image. For to manipulate an image is to control peoplehood. Zero image for a long time meant the repression of our peoplehood. Claude McKay sought to give credence to our peoplehood by first giving dignity to that section of our culture that had been most devalued: Black manhood (Fisher 95).”

In Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, McKay is given considerable attention. As Cruse has rightly argued, McKay was an extremely perceptive and articulate critic of the general scope and thrust of the Harlem Renaissance (Helbling 49). “If We Must Die” is both an artistic prelude to the literary works (prose and poetry) of the Harlem Renaissance and proof of McKay’s own commitment to a new form of social and political awareness. His own response to the poem is instructive: “To thousands of Negroes who are not trained to appreciate poetry, ‘If We Must Die’ makes me a poet. I myself was amazed at the general sentiment for the poem. For I am so intensely subjective as a poet, that I was not aware, at the moment of writing, that I was transformed into a medium to express a mass sentiment (McKay 228).”

To him, that he had raised the thoughts and feelings of others to a conscious level was satisfying; it was most astonishing that he had done this inadvertently. He had given way to what T.S. Eliot called ‘high art’ because he (McKay) had managed to express a collective sentiment only by giving conscious attention to the deepest feelings of his own poetic imagination.2 Thusly, his personality shone through, and he converted the emotion and thought surrounding the chaos of the lynchings of the summer of 1919 into poetry.

It is important to note that McKay’s favorite author was D.H. Lawrence. The qualities he saw in Lawrence are a perfect comment on his own sense of reality and search for meaning: In A Long Way Home, McKay states: “In D.H. Lawrence I found confusion-all of the ferment and torment and turmoil, the hesitation and hate and alarm, the sexual inquietude and the incertitude of this age, and the psychic and romantic groping for a way out (McKay 247).” Thus, the sonnet form was not merely an accident of McKay’s education but was specifically selected to illustrate the poet’s political agenda, exposing and undermining the many misconceptions about African Americans that the dominant culture seeks to perpetuate (Keller 450).

My Analysis. Perhaps the proper critical approach to McKay is mimetic.3 However, much of the criticism concerning him is exegetical in nature. This could be due to the sometimes “preachy” tone of his work. Nevertheless, McKay is an important literary figure as Hughes or Wright, perhaps even more so. Claude McKay fits into a pattern of thought which had its genesis directly after the first World War. He directly contradicts the theory of passive resistance, or complacent nonchalance, contrary to some other Black writers of his time. His strongest attribute was the extreme dislike for prevailing standards of racial discrimination; hence he lost no opportunity, when writing, to attack the status quo.

“If We Must Die” reflects the author’s acrimony toward the lynchers of Black men and women during the summer of 1919. Written during an epidemic of race riots that swept the country during that year, its theme is fighting to the death, do not take a beating lying down. Though the language of the poem is distinctly masculine, it does not imply race. However, because of the racial climate of the time, it became the rallying cry for Black people during the early 1920s. It would later become a rallying cry for the British during World War II and even later the revolutionary cry of the Black militants of the 1970s.

McKay took on a tremendous task when he chose to be the leading revolutionary voice of an oppressed people. Thus, whether a poet loses his effectiveness when he champions the problem of fighting arises. In the case of McKay, what he has had to say is important. Some who attempted to address the race problem were successful; others were not. McKay stands triumphant. Although he was frequently concerned with the race problem, his style remains lucid. “If We Must Die” succeeds in speaking for and reaching a mass audience is by surprise and not by calculation. Its flaws about gender and race are incidental and, therefore, must ultimately be overlooked so that those who argue that the medium he chose was too small or too large for his message or that the language is sexist or inherently racial are mistaken. McKay was and continues to be heard.

Annotated Bibliography. Blount, Marcellous. Engendering Men. New York: Rutledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1990. Race and gender in literature and other fields of interest. Bronz, Stephen H. Roots of Negro Consciousness, The 1920s: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors. New York: Libra, 1964. Discussion of the major events in McKay’s life and an analysis of their effect on his work. Bronz traces McKay’s poetry, fiction, and prose within the context of his life: his Jamaican heritage; his immigration to the United States; his reaction to American racism; his expatriate years in Russia, Europe, and Northern Africa; and his eventual return to America as a forgotten writer.

  • Burke, Virginia. “Black Literature For Whom?” Negro American Literature Forum. 9:1 (1975): 25-27.
  • Literature Resource Center. A.C. Lewis Memorial Library, Grambling, LA. 7 April 2003. <http://infotrac.galegroup.com/menu>. Educational reform in the teaching of Black literature with emphasis on the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Collier, Eugenia W. “The Four-Way Dilemma of Claude McKay.” C.L.A. Journal 15:3 (1972): 345-353. A look at four influences on McKay’s work.
  • Cooper, Wayne F. “Claude McKay and the New Negro of the 1920s.” Phylon. 25:3 (1964): 297-306. Discussion of a New Black consciousness during the 1920s translated into more expressive literature, thought, art, etc. Gave way to the Harlem Renaissance.
  • Fisher, Hoyt. Identity, Reality, and Responsibility: Elusive Poles in the World of Black Literature.
  • New York: Harper, 1972. The author discusses the need to study the full scope of Negro life in America. His chapter on Black literature and art discusses the contributions of writers and artists like McKay and Roberts.
  • Goldweber, David. “Home At Last: The pilgrimage of Claude
  • McKay (Black poet converted to Christianity).” Commonwealth Sept. 1999: 11. Literature Resource Center. A.C. Lewis Memorial Library, Grambling, LA. 7 Apr. 2003. <http://infotrac.galegroup.com/menu>. Article discussing McKay’s conversion from Atheism to Catholicism. His contradictions contributed to his ultimate conversion and perhaps the influence the conversion may have had on his work.
  • Helbling, R. The New Radicalism in America 1889-1963.
  • New York: Vintage, 1982. How radicalism changed in
  • America from 1889-1963. The author twice cites McKay’s influence on radical movements in America.
  • Keller, James R. “‘ A Chafing Savage, Down the Decent Street:’ The Politics of Compromise in Claude McKay’s
  • Protest Sonnets.” African American Review Aug. 1994: 447-456. JSTOR. A. C. Lewis Memorial Library,
  • Grambling, LA. 8 Apr. 2003. <http://links.jstor.org/ici?sici=1062-4783%28199423%2928%3A3%3C447%3A%22CSDT D%3E2.0.CO%3B2-X>. The contrast between form and content in McKay’s Protest sonnets. The author sheds light on the fact that McKay uses the Romantic Sonnet to express revolutionary ideas.
  • McKay, Claude. A Long Way from Home. New York: Arno, 1969. Autobiographical information from the author and personal insights into his more famous works.
  • McKay, Claude. Harlem Shadows. New York: Harper, 1921. A volume of poetry that is perhaps McKay’s most fiery and vociferous. Considered by many to be his best work.
  • Priebe, Richard. “The Search for Community in the Works of Claude McKay.” Studies in Black Literature. 3:2 (1972): 22-30. Discussion of how McKay incorporated the Philosophy of Community into his novels and other work.
  • Singh, Amritjit. The Novels of the Harlem Renaissance: Twelve Black Writers 1923-1933. New York: Harcourt, 1996. Insight into Harlem Renaissance writers ranging from Hughes to Wright, Cullen to McKay.
  • Tolson, M.B. “Claude McKay’s art.” Poetry. 4:42 (1954):287-290.<http://www.csustan.edu/english/tolson/pal/ mckay.html> Tolson discusses the influences on McKay’s work and how “If We Must Die” was the first major work of the Harlem Renaissance.
  1. Exegesis in the literature is defined as using a religious approach to analyze secular literature.
  2. T.S. Eliot believed that art needs to be impersonal; using the poet as a catalyst for converting emotion and thought into poetry; personality is necessary for high art.
  3. Mimetic- how the literature sprang out of the world.

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