Heather Cox Richardson
|Claude McKay. Courtesy of the |
Beinecke Library, Yale University.
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!
O 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!
McKay penned his famous lines after riots in the summer of 1919 left dozens dead and thousands homeless. In Chicago at the end of July, when a black boy drifted toward a whites-only beach, white youths stoned him to death. Ten bloody days later, 38 people were dead and more than 500 wounded. Riots in Nebraska, Texas, and across the South continued to claim American lives.
“If We Must Die” was a howl of resistance, but it also marked the rise of a new American cultural movement. In the North’s new black ghettos, created as African Americans left the South to work in the industries that fed World War I, culture thrived. Jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington experimented with new rhythms and keys; writers like Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston celebrated the black experience as a human experience, rejecting old stereotypes to make fictional black characters realistic.