Wednesday, March 13, 2013

“If We Must Die,” A Poem We All Should Know

Heather Cox Richardson

Claude McKay. Courtesy of the
Beinecke Library, Yale University.
Recently, I found myself telling history students which poems they must know as part of their rock-bottom basic understanding of American history. There is Anne Bradstreet’s “Epitaph for her Mother," exploring what it meant to be a good woman in colonial America; Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in theDooryard Bloom’d," linking Lincoln’s assassination to the natural world; and Claude McKay’s 1919 “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—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.

McKay’s poem is a work of art that reflects both an era and a revolution. It belongs in everyone’s lexicon.


Eric B. Schultz said...

Great poems, Heather. Really powerful and memorable. Thanks for sharing. The irony was, maybe, that contemporary Americans were more likely to read and recite the work of poets like Edgar Guest (the “People’s Poet”). I found one of his hundreds (thousands?) of works quoted in a 1920 textile factory newsletter, obviously intended to “influence” immigrant workers: “Said Dan McGann to a foreign man who worked at the self-same bench/ “Let me tell you this,” and for emphasis he flourished a Stillson wrench/“Don’t talk to me of the bourjoissee, don’t open your mouth to speak/ Of your Socialists or your Anarchists, don’t mention the Bolsheveek. . . .” Etc. You get the idea. It’s the difference between literary fiction and the best-seller list, what we hope people will read and remember and how they actually behave. Thanks for keeping the good stuff alive!

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I am ashamed to say I didn't know this poem. My world is now better. It is also really moving to know the context, of course. There are probably lots of works of art that become much more poignant through knowing their context..... I'm going into my day inspired.

John Mulholland said...

Sadly, the very ghettos, where for a time African culture developed, thrived, and brought hope, became the seedbeds for more riots as African Americans continued to be shut out of the American family and economy. A poem from the past that continues to ring more true today than it should.

hcr said...

What makes this poem so incredible, I think--aside from the language, of course-- is that, as John says, it speaks to the specifics of black life in 1919, but also speaks more generally to any persecuted group in any country in any era. It's historical and mythical, at the same time.

FWIW, Lisa, I have no idea who Eric's Edward Guest is! I don't think I've ever even heard of him. I'll have to look him up. Along with Charlie and the MTA, this is turning into popular cultural week for me!

hcr said...

Oh my.

I just looked him up. Eric wasn't kidding about the deficiencies of his style.

From "The Slacker:"

"The saddest sort of death to die
Would be to quit the game called life
And know, beneath the gentle sky,
You'd lived a slacker in the strife.
That nothing men on earth would find
To mark the spot that you had filled;
That you must go and leave behind
No patch of soil your hands had tilled."

Ouch. A Claude McKay he was not!