Claude McKay: The Man Behind “If We Must Die”

from the lecture series: African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow

By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University

Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” was a plea to African Americans, his kinsmen, to defend themselves against the savagery of white mobs that rampaged across Black America in 1919. If African Americans were destined to die at the hands of a “murderous, cowardly pack”, then let them die defiantly, striking back, fighting back.

Concept of the struggle for equality; black and white fists bumping
The feeling among African Americans in the summer of 1919 was equal parts despondency and determination. (Image: franz12/Shutterstock)

“If We Must Die”

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!

kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

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!

The anger, urgency, and boldness of Claude McKay’s verse captured the insurgent spirit of a new generation of African Americans—young people who had been born after emancipation and came of age during the ascendency of Jim Crow. It was a generation who experienced life in the rural South and the urban North, who mastered industrial sciences at Hampton Institute and arts and letters at Harvard University, who fought on foreign soil to make the world and America safe for democracy.

This generation continued to lift their voices and sing about the triumphs and travails of African Americans, but the tenor and tone of their song was different.

McKay’s Early Learning

Claude McKay was born in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, in 1889, the son of small farmers. At around eight years old, his parents sent him to live with his brother, Uriah, an elementary school teacher, who taught his sibling the fundamentals of reading. During their time together, Uriah introduced him to the writings of European freethinkers and socialists. Their philosophical belief that religion masked more than it revealed shaped his own.

After winning a scholarship from the Jamaican colonial government to apprentice as a furniture maker, McKay set out on his own, moving to the predominantly white capital city of Kingston. McKay was good with his hands, but he yearned for intellectual stimulation.

Learnings in “Songs of Jamaica”

He received what he sought in an unconventional way when he joined the Jamaican police. Their brutal treatment of Black Jamaicans disturbed him greatly, but the experience taught him that racial injustice did not simply exist in the realm of the abstract, but rather played a prominent role in the everyday lives of Black people.

Injustice was no longer just what European freethinkers debated; it was what ordinary Jamaicans experienced. McKay channeled his new insights into his first book of poems, “Songs of Jamaica”, a celebration of Black life on the island that was published in 1912.

The Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences awarded McKay a cash prize for “Songs of Jamaica”, which he used to fund a trip to the United States. In 1912, he enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, drawn as much by Booker T. Washington’s economic racial uplift philosophy as he was by an interest in scientific farming. After two months, he transferred to Kansas State Agricultural College in Manhattan, Kansas.

And two years after that, he left school altogether and moved to the other Manhattan, the one in the Empire State, to pursue his passion for writing.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Life in America

It was impossible for a young Black writer, even one as gifted as McKay, to make a living solely off his published words. To pay his bills, McKay worked various entry-level jobs around the city, including as a dining car waiter for the Pennsylvania Railroad. These jobs exposed him to all sorts of racial discrimination. The color line was as clear in New York City as it was in Kingston. It dictated where Black people could eat, sleep, work, and play.

A black and white portrait of Claude McKay.
The odd jobs that Claude McKay did in America exposed him to all sorts of racial discrimination. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

His odd jobs also introduced him to a bevy of working-class Black radicals, men and women born in the US and the Caribbean who embraced various iterations of communism, socialism, and Black nationalism. One of the groups that McKay joined was the African Blood Brotherhood for African Liberation and Redemption, or just ABB.

Joining ABB

The ABB members were deeply committed to the right of Black people to defend themselves against raging white mobs. And they fully embraced the idea of an independent, Black, socialist commonwealth.

Between odd jobs, McKay wrote. His poetry appeared in literary and political periodicals popular among New York City socialists. Max and Crystal Eastman, the brother-sister duo who founded and edited the Liberator, the most influential radical monthly of the day, became enamored with McKay. In the July 1919 issue of their magazine, they debuted six of his poems; “If We Must Die” was one of them.

Praise from White Admirers

In the editors’ note introducing McKay, the Eastmans wrote, “We have the good fortune to publish this month a page of sonnets and songs by a negro poet practically unknown to the public, who seems to have a greater and more simple and strong gift of poetry than any other of his race has had.”

This was the highest praise that a Black person could expect from white admirers. At the time, it was unfathomable to compare the abilities of Blacks to whites. In their minds, McKay’s greatness could only exist relative to his own race.

But McKay wasn’t just a brilliant Black poet; he was a brilliant poet, whose verse captured the mood of the moment perfectly. Throughout the 1920s, McKay captured the defiant spirit that animated African Americans. He wrote pieces for The Liberator and Negro World. He published another book of poetry, “Harlem Shadows”, in 1922, and his first novel, Home to Harlem, in 1928.

Common Questions about Claude McKay

Q: When and where was Claude McKay born?

Claude McKay was born in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica.

Q: What did Claude McKay do in New York? How did it inspire him to write?

To pay his bills, Claude McKay worked various entry-level jobs around the city, including as a dining car waiter for the Pennsylvania Railroad. These jobs exposed him to all sorts of racial discrimination. The color line was as clear in New York City; it dictated where Black people could eat, sleep, work, and play.

Q: What was the “Songs of Jamaica”?

Claude McKay’s first book of poems was “Songs of Jamaica”. It was a celebration of Black life in Jamaica that was published in 1912.

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