If We Must Die

Commentary on “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay

Claude McKay "If We Must Die"

(Photo Credit: The Poetry Foundation)

If We Must Die

by Claude McKay

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—oh, 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!

Oh, 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!

Commentary on the Poem

This poem was penned in 1919 by Claude McKay.  At the time it was published, serious race riots primarily involving White assaults on Black neighborhoods in a dozen American cities were occurring.  McKay wrote this poem in response to these race riots that resulting in the deaths of numerous Black people.  It was his desire for Black people to not simply accept these assaults and murders but to fight back against these efforts to annihilate them.  The poet asserts that “If we must die” we should die “fighting back”—not accepting our demise in a docile way.  In a fight against racism, discrimination and oppression, it’s vital to understand that there are going to be battles you lose, but fighting back gives one an opportunity to win the war, which is more important.

The speaker of the poem highlights that to die to fighting against racism and discrimination is to “die nobly.”  In our contemporary period, we don’t have enough people willing to combat the “monsters” who oppress us.  One of the fundamental reasons why we’re currently struggling to win against racial oppression is envy within our ranks.  McKay’s poem calls for solidarity and not division among Black people.  The poet wants us to recognize that we’re facing a “common foe”: racists.

Too often we allow envy to cause us to lose sight of the common foe.  While we’re attempting to undermine one another, the common foe is gaining a larger advantage in the effort to destroy us.  McKay is keenly aware of how a lack of commitment to solidarity weakens Black people in the fight against their oppressors.  The racists are united in their mission to decimate Black people.  For McKay, Blacks must match their solidarity.  True solidarity is necessary to defeating the robust manacles of racism.

Although our contemporary conditions are not exactly like those McKay writes about in 1919, Black people still face racism, racial prejudice, and discrimination.  We must learn to stand united against our current oppressors.  When we begin to cognize that we should stop fighting one another and start fighting our oppressors, we will witness the authentic change we long to see.

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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If We Must Die: Winning the War against Your Enemies

When people have declared a personal and professional war against you, you must understand that you will need to counterpunch. Counterpunching is not being dirty. Counterpunching is necessary if you are not going to let your enemies defeat you. One of the things that I have learned most about defeating those who have attempted to destroy me personally and professionally is you have to always keep them off-balanced. Never allow them to be able to anticipate you. You also have to be careful about what you say around even your closest family members and friends. Your enemies do not need to be able to use deceitful strategies to manipulate your family members and close friends into providing them with information that might give them some insights about you so that they can use the data for evil purposes. To win the war, you might have to distance yourself from some of your close family members and friends.

Although you may not always want to, it is important for you to be patient when you have a number of enemies attempting to cause you trouble. You may not want to consider yourself being in a war, but you are really in a war. When you are in a war, it’s okay if you have to lose some battles, even if you have to lose some significant battles. The chief goal you should have is to never lose the war. I’d rather lose a battle or some battles than lose a war. In war, there will be casualties so you are going to have to be ready to deal with that reality. Even if you did not start the war, as is often the case, you must come fully prepared to tackle the war you are facing. When people are making conscious and concerted efforts to destroy you personally and professionally, you have to fight back. Sometimes you just got to rise up! We are Americans and Americans fight! Don’t simply let people try to do great harm to you without fighting vehemently back.

In a famous poem, “If We Must Die,” composed by Claude McKay, the poem argues for those who are fighting against strong people and forces to fight back, even if they are too great to defeat. The poem posits that the least you can do is fight your enemies back with all you have.

When your enemies lie about you, you don’t have to worry about correcting the record about each lie they tell about you. Correct the record about the most egregious lies they tell about you. Don’t be afraid to be an Army of One if you have to. If you have people you can trust to be on your team, then allow them to be on your team. You will need to make sure, however, that the people you allow to be on your team have a vested interest in you and/or the defeat of your enemies. Use the resources that you have to defeat your enemies and use any platforms you have to defeat your enemies. I am thankful that Revolutionary Paideia is a powerful platform that I have to fight against my enemies, and my Facebook page is also a pretty strong platform I have to fight against my enemies.

Therefore, if you have blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and etc. through which you have amassed large audiences, I greatly recommend that you employ these vehicles to help you to fight your enemies. These vehicles can prove to be highly valuable when you are fighting against enemies who are well-respected, highly paid, have large megaphones, and who can use deceit successfully against you. You will be surprised how once you get your true message out how many people will begin to support you. Don’t ever give up during the war against your enemies.

Never attack first but always be ready to counterpunch! You need to create a strategic plan to defeat your enemies. This plan should be written. Revisit it often, revise it when necessary, and follow through with it always. You need to be well-organized when you are fighting against powerful enemies and forces. Demonstrate to people why your enemies should not be believed and trusted. Use every legal measure at your disposal to defeat your enemies.

Ultimately, when you have your enemies down on the ground, stomp them! War is not pretty and war is not easy. You must always be ready for the unexpected. You have to outlast your enemies. You don’t have to have the money, respect, talent, and etc. that you’re enemies have, but you will need to be sophisticated enough, well-organized enough, and strategic enough to outlast them. I wish you all the best in your efforts to win your wars against your enemies!

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison