Poetry

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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Commentary on “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes

English:

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

 

I, Too, Sing America

by Langston Hughes  

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Commentary on the Poem

In “I, Too, Sing America,” the poet challenges the racist ideology of Whites who don’t recognize the full citizenship of Blacks in America.  Black people have made tremendous contributions to America.  In fact, this nation, from its very inception, was built on Black labor.  Blacks have participated in every war in American history, dating back to the American Revolutionary War.  The patriotism of Blacks, therefore, shouldn’t ever be questioned.  The poet explains his brutal mistreatment simply because of his skin color.  He has trouble coming to terms with the racial oppression he faces.  It’s understandable for one to be baffled by the absurdity of racism and racist ideology.

The speaker of the poem is not ashamed of who he is.  He wishes that Whites wouldn’t be ashamed of him.  They have no reason to be ashamed of him, considering he’s “beautiful.”

When the poet refers to “Tomorrow,” he’s evincing his Utopian imagination: He’s envisioning a day when racist Whites will not have a choice but to grant him full equality and equal citizenship rights.  When this “Tomorrow” arrives, racists will have to acknowledge his beauty and they will experience shame.  The shame they will experience will emerge from how they have alienated themselves from the beauty of Black people without any justifiable reason.  They will see how this self-estrangement from Blacks has caused them to miss numerous possibilities.

As we celebrate Juneteenth today, let’s reflect on not only Black emancipation in America, but also how essential Blacks gaining freedom is to America becoming as great a nation it is today.

 Happy Juneteenth!  

Antonio Maurice Daniels

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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