Jan Almasy Dr. Butler ENG 234 2 May 2012 “If We Must Die” and the World of a Peacetime Veteran The poem “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay is a poem that can be widely interpreted by many different audiences. In the view of an African American, the poem relates to acts of blatant racism. In the eyes of a male soldier, it encompasses the honor of war. In the mind of a female soldier, it gives insight into the horror of harassment and discrimination in the armed forces. To understand the full meaning of this poem, we must first visit Claude McKay as a young person growing up in Jamaica. Claude McKay was born on the 15th of September in 1890 on the island of Jamaica. He was the youngest of eleven children. At an early age, McKay was sent to live with the eldest brother farther in town. His older brother was a school teacher and was given the responsibility of teaching the youngest of the McKay family. After learning to read young Claude grabbed every book he could find and delved into the magical worlds that they brought to him. At the age of ten he began writing poetry. He won a prize for his poetry in 1912. The prize money enabled him to attend Tuskegee University; however his time there was very brief and he ended up moving to Kansas to study the world of agriculture. His period in Kansas ended with a surge of riots from the Ku Klux Klan (Baker). In 1914 McKay moved to New York to escape the harsh treatment of african-americans in the Kansas area. After being in New York a short time he invested money in a restaurant, and invested his time and person into a woman by the name of
Eulalie Imelda Lewars. After just a short year of having the business and a wife, both investments left his portfolio. The business went under, while his wife went back to Jamaica to give birth to their daughter. In 1919 McKay became an editor at The Liberator in New York. During the summer of 1919 there were 28 public lynching. This “Red Summer” as it was later named, was the inspiration for one of McKay’s most widely quoted, and most known poems (Giles). James Weldon Johnson (an early civil rights activist) wrote that Claude McKay was “one of the principal forces in bringing about the Negro literary awakening” (Baker). The poem “If We Must Die” was not only a poem on the horrifying acts of racism committed in that fateful summer of 1919. It is also a universal poem for any person seeking motivation for their cause. This poem was so universal that in fact, Winston Churchill quoted much of the poem in a famous speech he gave to the American Congress as an attempt to persuade them to take action in the war. The “never give up” feeling that the poem gives through it’s motivating tone. McKay’s delivery of the poem almost forces the reader to read it as if he/she were reading it to an army before a battle. In the first line of the poem McKay would like the readers to understand that if we know we must die. We should strive to die with honor, not in the bottom of the pack. To emphasize this point he utilizes the dash. This forces the reader to slow down, and read it in a more somber tone: “If we must die--let it not be like hogs.” In the second line of the poem McKay expresses how trapped the negro population felt during the Red Summer of 1919; however the line also applies to any “refugee” or “POW” in a war: “Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot.” The acceptance
of knowing death will arrive eventually gives the soldiers more gusto because they know that they might as well go down fighting. The next two lines of the poem give the readers a look into the hearts and minds of the “evil ones.” It seems as if they do not have any emotion whatsoever for the victims of the discrimination. They believe that it is their “right” to treat them with hostility. The lines that display this are very harsh, both with the strong sounds of the bursting “b’s”, the tenacious “t’s”, the destructive “d’s” and the “k’s:” “While round...
Cited: Baker, Houston. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. Print. Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. Port of Spain: New Beacon, 1984. Print. Giles, Freda S. "Claude McKay 's Life." Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois. University of Illinois, Feb. 2000. Web. 26 Apr. 2012. Neidig, Peggy. Peacetime Veteran. Personal Interview. 28 Apr. 2012.
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