If We Must Die

June 27, 2023
1 min read
National Guardsmen, called in by Chicago Mayor 'Big Bill' Thompson after three days of rioting in the summer of 1919, question an African American man. Image: Photo by Jun Fujita/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

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 accursèd 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!

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!


Originally published in The Liberator magazine in 1919 and later included in Claude McKay’s 1922 collection, Harlem Shadows, “If We Must Die” was a response to the wave of violent attacks perpetrated by white Americans against African-American communities during the Red Summer. Coined by civil rights activist and author James Weldon Johnson, the Red Summer marked a period of racial attacks across various cities in the United States, including rural Arkansas.

Although the poem was written in 1919, McKay’s speaker does not explicitly reference the specific period of violence. Instead, the speaker addresses the broader importance of resisting oppression as a means to uphold dignity and honor. Encouraging his “kinsmen” to stand against their oppressors and respond to violence with violence, the speaker asserts that even in the face of inevitable death, resistance ensures dignity and forces oppressors to honor them, even in death.

McKay’s choice to write the poem as an English sonnet, employing iambic pentameter and a traditional rhyme scheme, reflects the speaker’s defiant tone. As a Jamaican writer in the British colony, McKay’s adoption of this quintessentially English poetic form can be seen as a political act of defiance, especially considering his use of it to amplify the voice of the oppressed.

This poem is in the public domain.

Claude McKay

Born in Jamaica in 1889, Claude McKay wrote about social and political concerns from his perspective as a black man in the United States, as well as a variety of subjects ranging from his Jamaican homeland to romantic love.

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