Poetry Analysis Essay: Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” In the poem,
“If We Must Die” written by Claude McKay, the author was inspired to compose this piece of writing because of the brutality and race riots against the African American society that the United States experienced in 1919. The author came over from Jamaica in 1912 and eventually became part of the Harlem Renaissance along with other African American writers that developed their ideas together and this was the first time this was very popular in America. Mckay had a different standpoint on our country because he was born in a different country and settled on America being his home. He was able to catch sight of the vigorous and shoddy facets of America. This poet inspired other black poets to communicate about their experiences and encounterments with racism in their poems. As you read on, I’ll give a more capacious explanation of the meaning of this poem and some techniques used to make it more captivating.
As there could be many interpretations of what “If We Must Die”means, a person really would not understand if they didn’t take the time to read and dissect the poem. As said before in the analysis, McKay composed this poem during the Harlem Renaissance era when black poets would share their experiences with racism through poetry. This means that McKay constructed this poem most likely because of something he was enduring or witnessed during this time. What I elucidated from the title was a feeling of hope for African Americans. McKay wants the black community to stand up and fight back for equality in every aspect of life and to live comfortably in America. At first, the title seemed as though it was a wake up call for blacks and he was trying to motivate us to die for a cause or with meaning and that he wanted us to contribute to the black’s history before we leave the earth so others would remember us and maybe even the enemy will honor our death. On the other hand, he could not necessarily be trying to warn blacks about being killed but to apprise us to not let our voices be silenced any longer.
Having a voice is formidable and can have an immense impact on other people and can also be the deciding factor of your level of success. McKay detected its influence on people and has mastered the power of voice through poetry and wants to inspire African Americans to use theirs to make a change in America. The structure of poems is the way it is written in a sense to make it flow better. The rhyme scheme of this poem is ABABCDCDEFEFGG and it uses many characteristics of the Shakespearean Sonnet. McKay used casual language for the most part because he is mostly directing this to younger African Americans since we will be in control in the future. This particular piece of writing would be considered lyric poetry because the author is expressing his personal feelings about oppression against African Americans. Lyrical poems typically does not have to rhyme but in this case it does. The author uses words to express his state of mind and his perceptions. In the opening lines of the writing, it says “If we must die, let it not be like hogs”. He is making a connection with blacks and hogs to advise us not to be like this. He does not want us to squeal in fear and just stand still while the whites are trying do away with us. Additionally he feels like he is being ambushed and oppressed by the whites when he states, “While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs” in line 3 of the poem. The speaker also says, “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack”, in line 13. McKay feels as though the white men are murderous and cowardly. If he calls the whites cowards, then he must feel lionhearted and that is what he is trying to get the blacks to attain from this. In summary, the author used these statements to express the long standing situation of the whites encumbering the blacks and their attempt to shut us up for good and he is not willing to let that continue on. Further into the poem, it is self-evident that the speaker in “If We Must Die” is a man that is trying to escape from someone or something. In the first line the speaker says, “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”. This hints at a problem or a group of people that the speaker is trying to flee from and the oppression the speaker is up against is becoming too much to withstand. He compares the blacks to hogs because they were viewed as a disgust and that is how the whites viewed us. In the poem, he isn’t alone judging by the use of the word “we” being used in the poem several times. He wants his followers and the reader to be aware of what is taking place. In line 10 the speaker says, “Though far outnumbered let us show us brave”. He is referring to the many whites in this statement and that the blacks are outnumbered but we still shouldn’t be afraid. In short, the speaker knows that the blacks are outnumbered but he does not feel like that is a reason to not fight back for what we believe in or not to want a change for the better.
Throughout the poem, the author uses techniques of languages to project meaning. McKay’s skilled use of these devices generated clarity and opulence in the writing for the readers to better understand and engage. In line 3, the author describes the adversary as “mad and hungry dogs”. This is an example of a metaphor because he is comparing the whites to vicious dogs without directly saying that. This sends a memo that the whites are deranged and diabolical beings that are less than human. Now that he has put the picture of the whites because vicious and crazed, he tries to lessen that or make them less chilling. In line 10, the speaker says “O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe”. He is now comparing Caucasians to the common enemy and this gives a sense of hope for African Americans because they really aren’t as scary and monstrous as we first pictured. Maybe viewing them as the ordinary enemy, will make the blacks fight harder and have confidence while doing so. Some Christian imagery is also apparent in this writing. When the speaker says “If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed in vain” in lines 5 and 6. He wants us to die with purpose if we must die. In the bible it speaks about humans being put on Earth for a reason and carrying out the plan that God has for us. This brings to mind the image of Jesus being hung on the cross. He died for our sins and for us to live and that was the purpose that he served before he was killed. This use of language helps us understand how the two races viewed each other then and now.
The overall tone (mood) of “If We Must Die” is fearlessness and acceptance. Towards the start of the writing, McKay paints an image of the whites trying to corner African Americans so we have no place to run. He stresses to the black community, that this is not how we should go out. Towards the median of the poem, he describes the whites with further detail. He tells the reader that they are wicked and unfair and that he is aware that we are outnumbered. McKay also wants us to accept death but wants us to put up a fight so that there would be a struggle. Towards the conclusion of the poem, he tells the reader that the whites are cowards and paints a less scarier picture of them which makes effortless for us to be brave. Once we see that they are not half as horrible as we once thought, this makes us lose all of the fear that we once had. It’s almost like a child that has a fear of monsters. Once the child turn their light on and look under the bed or in the closet and see nothing, it is easier for them to sleep. These details used can contribute to the overall theme of this poem which would be, “Fight back so that one dies with honor, even when one is outnumbered”. The unemployment crisis and police brutality during the Harlem Renaissance, made life extremely hard for Africans Americans to live comfortably in the U.S. Blacks were killed and treated unfairly but this is an ongoing conflict. We still have racism today and prejudiced treatment, not only towards blacks but other races also. Poets like Claude McKay, share their disdain for racism and the stupidity of the racist. The message he is trying to send to the reader is apparent in his writings. McKay is encouraging the African American race to make use of their 1st amendment rights to fight for a greater cause before the Caucasian race completely take over and dominate America, in short.