AP English Literature
If We Must Die By: Claude McKay
If We Must Die, by Claude McKay is a sonnet written during the Harlem Renaissance period; a period where there was a flowering of African-American literature and art, (1919- mid 1930s). Though the Harlem Renaissance period was a time of thriving people and culture in the African-American community, prejudice was still very much active; something African-Americans knew first hand. There was still much discrimination put against them; something that this poem happens to exhibit. This poem is about dying with a purpose; not without honor, but rather one that even their enemies will bow down to. Since everyone has to die, why not let it be meaningful? The speaker says that his race will either die fighting, or die trying. There will be no simply ‘accepting’ their fate. They have a purpose in this world, and they intend to fulfill it. McKay conveys this message through expressive words and vivid imagery. It is a poem that moves the reader; through similes, repetition, imagery, rhythm scheme, and symbolism one can find that the narrator feels very strongly about dying.
Similes play an important part in helping to decipher the meaning the narrator is trying to say. In the first sentence, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs...” the speaker is comparing their dying to the way in which a hog dies. Hogs and pigs are often slaughtered for their meat; a ruthless way to die. Pigs do not get to decide how they die; other people make that decision. Hogs in particular die in a powerless way. Male pigs are first castrated, which is often viewed as weak, and then sentenced to death. The narrator wants him and his men to die manly, and face death head on; the complete opposite of how a hog dies. “…Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot...” Pigs are generally kept in fenced areas; unable to escape the predators that come...
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