Sunday, December 4, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "One of Claude McKay's best known poems is the sonnet "If We Must Die."  This poem seems to inspire every generation when they read it or hear it recited. Does this poem have a special place in your heart?  If so, why?"

I think it would be appropriate to let readers see the poem before I comment on it.

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 accursed 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 deathblow!
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!

I believe Ethelbert is right about the response of each generation to McKay's famous poem. It was published in 1919 in the June issue of The Liberator, and I imagine it was a spirited, martial response to lynchings and other atrocities committed against black Americans. (See his poem entitled "The Lynching.") If I remember correctly, Winston Churchill read this poem on the radio during the Nazi blitz of London. That speaks well about its universality.

When I first encountered the poem it was in the 1960s so naturally my reading of it was textured by the Civil Rights, then Black Power Movements, and the feeling shared by many young black males, myself among them, that it was better to die fighting white racism than to submit in any way to it.

So, yes, "If We Must Die" has held a special place in my heart for my entire adult life. In my opinion, every black American in particular needs to know it the way they know "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," and every American in general should know it the way they know William Ernest Henley's poem "Invictus." 

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