Claude McKay was a poet and novelist born on September 15th, 1889, in Sunny Ville, Jamaica. He developed an interest in the British literature at a young age, getting inspired by the works of Alexander Pope and John Milton. He started writing poetry at the age of seventeen, with influence from his brother, Theophilus, who was a school teacher in Jamaica. Another notable individual in his life was Water Jekyll, who was an Englishman. Through the influence of Walter, Claude worked on poems in local dialect, reflecting the lives of the people in Sunny Ville, a dominant black community (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”).
As a young adult, Claude worked as a woodworker in Brown and also took other menial jobs in Kingston City (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”). It was in the capital where he came face to face with racism. Claude found that the society in Kingston was dominated by the white people who considered the blacks to be less equal. After his time in Kingston, he went back to Sunny Ville where he published his first two books, Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads, the two works that reflect the bleakness of Claude’s art (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”). He was usually fierce, blunt, and unapologetic about the way he viewed issues in his books. Songs of Jamaica is a reflection of the people of Sunny Ville and the importance that was accorded to the peasants while Constab Ballads reflects his experience in Kingston (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”).[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]
The success of the first two books enabled McKay to travel to America where he enrolled in two schools, Tuskegee College in Alabama and Kansas State College, staying in Tuskegee College for only two months (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”). McKay moved to New York in 1914 where he did menial jobs to finance his stay and continued writing poetry, inspired by the level of racism in New York (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”). One of the most famous poems from his time in New York was “If We Must Die,” where he gave the American establishment a scathing attack on the importance of granting black people the same rights as the white people. The poem imprinted his name on the Harlem Renaissance, a crop of black poets and novelists who shaped black literature in the 1930’s (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”).
McKay’s career took an international swing after the “If We Must Die.” He moved to Belgium (for the whole of 1919) and went to London where he worked in a periodical, “Workers’ Dreadnought” (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”). Between 1920 and 1921, McKay published two collections, “Spring in New Hampshire” and “Harlem Shadows.” The latter was made of the most remarkable poem of his career, including ‘If We Must Die’ and “Harlem Shadows.” McKay kept traveling and writing, despite suffering a respiratory disease while in Paris that led to his hospitalization. His first novel, Home to Harlem captured the instinctual behavior of a young black soldier who left his career to go back to Harlem (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”).
The Home to Harlem novel was quickly followed by Banjo: A Story without a Plot and Banana Bottom, a book that sought to raise questions about the cultural identity of black people in a white dominated society (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”). The novels were followed by Gingertown, a collection of twelve short stories that acclaimed McKay as a highly valuable writer in the 1930’s. He later went into children’s literature, on being influenced by Catholicism by Ellen Tarry. His health deteriorated in the 1940s, and he succumbed to heart failure in 1948 (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”).
Poem analysis – “If We Must Die”
“If We Must Die” is arguably the most important piece of art written by Claude McKay. It engraved him into the hearts of the people in New York and established him as a serious poet. The poem uses strong language to paint the plight of the black people living in America. McKay used bleakness and bare language to tell blacks in America that they should arise and fight the common enemy, by uniting against oppression and discrimination by color in the hands of the white majority.
The poem fits into the narrative of victimhood experienced by the black communities in New York. It reflects the ideas of McKay as a proud black, born in Sunny Ville where racism was not as pronounced as in Kingston and New York. It also indicates the possibility that McKay was a little naïve on the issues of discrimination and racism. He thought that all black people had existed in communities that valued their contributions and lives, and the stark contrast in New York made him angry into constructing a sad, direct, and accusingly tough poem that attacked the white community directly (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”).
The reception of the poem in New York provides evidence that the black people needed someone to voice their concerns in words that did not show victimhood. Perhaps, the fact that McKay was born in a society that did not experience a lot of racism contributed to his tough character that prompted him to write the poem. For an American who had grown up knowing racism and the fundamentality with which it affected the lives of the blacks, it would have been difficult to throw a gibe directly into the faces of the white people. Therefore, “If We Might Die” shows the amount of disappointment that McKay felt with the way the people had accepted their position as victims in the society (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”).[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]
McKay did menial jobs when he came to New York, and he also came into contact with black prostates (who he wrote about later in his life). The experience in the menial jobs drove his anger into thinking that the society pushed the black people towards the periphery, leaving them to do the less-humanly jobs that fed their poverty. Perhaps, treatment from white bosses opened his eyes into the way the problem of racism sank deep into the skins of the blacks in America, and he could have recognized that it would take a lot of effort and strength to change the people’s minds about racism (“Claude McKay: 1889–1948”).
The poem begins by demanding the attention of the black readers who McKay was addressing. ‘If we must die, let it not be like hogs’ is the opening line of the first stanza (McKay 168). It traps the reader into the subject. The use of the word ‘hogs’ creates a sense of bleakness and plays the role of preparing the reader for what follows next. Hogs are domestic animals that are killed by being rounded into a spot with the help of dogs. Likening the death of the blacks in America to that of hogs elicits historical memories of slavery and how blacks were viewed as property by the white people. By opening the poem with that line, McKay strikes a line that connects history and the current reality.
The next three lines offer more credibility to the opening line, by creating a picture in the mind of the reader of the way slaves would be killed in the earlier days. The idea of dogs ‘rounding the hogs’ and mocking them instills fear in the way the society treated the black people (McKay 168). Normally, a dog is a creature that is often quoted as a low-lying animal in the pyramid of importance. In this case, the hogs are mocked by barking dogs. Therefore, by pulling that allegory, McKay paints a dreary picture of black people lying so low in the society such that the dogs stood a better chance of a decent living more than the people.
On the fifth line, the poem makes the first statement of intent; ‘If we must die, O let us nobly die’ (McKay 168). McKay calls on the black people to fight for nobility and respectability such that their position in the society is respected. By telling the black people to die with nobility, McKay is pushing them to reject the state of victimhood that makes them expect less for their efforts. It tells them to strive to live decently, and if they must die, to die decently too such that the future generations do not have to fight for respect and equality. That is confirmed by the following line that tells the blacks that their blood should not be shed in vain (McKay 168).
He breaks into a tantrum that paints the white people as enemies of the blacks, as monsters who are out to ensure that blacks live in complete deprivation. McKay tells the blacks that, by staying up for a fight against the enemy, they will win honor (nobility) even though they will be dead by the time they get that respect. Perhaps, when compared with the poem in the “Songs of Jamaica,” the first collection published by McKay, the poem shows the presence of surprise in McKay’s life. He compares the way his mother received a decent burial and the way the black people were discriminated in New York, and that gave him pangs in his stomach (McKay 168). The fact that McKay had a firsthand example of the experience of the black people in Sunny Ville living in harmony and decency feeds his anger to push the blacks in the United States to demand more.
After encouraging the black people to fight the ‘common foe,’ the poem relaxes its tone to a conversational and self-reflective one that admits the specific strengths of the enemy (McKay 168). It offers that the blacks are outnumbered, and they might not be able to defeat the enemy in one attempt of an attack. McKay writes ‘And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!’ (McKay 168). That line could mean two different things. One, to the white people, death to one of them could be more significant than the passing of a thousand blacks. It could also mean that the poet encouraged the people to start with small wins, by inflicting injury and pain to the enemy.
The poem swings back to the rallying of the black people to fight for their right despite the fact that the enemy was stronger. It also balances on the possibilities, coming to the conclusion that, whatever the case, the blacks were awaiting death, whether they fought or not. The idea of nobility gathers more weight in the last three lines. The poem suggests that, even if the people are pressed against the wall, even if they were dying by the numbers, they should not give up. They should always fight back (McKay 168). Therefore, “If We Must Die” is a classic piece of the poem that communicates to the blacks in New York in a fresh, bleak, and spirited style.
Significance of Claude McKay to New York City
McKay was a prominent voice for the rights of the black people at a time when it was tough and dangerous. Individuals who opposed the establishment suffered in the hand of the police. People lived in fear of speaking the truth and facing the reality as it was, choosing instead to suppress their thoughts and feelings. McKay helped the people of Harlem to break from that cocoon, by giving them a voice and inspiration that would ensure that the blacks gained on the amount of privileges they enjoyed (Gosciak 762-63).[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]
Another vital contribution to McKay was his successful prodding into the nexus of the American society and the cultural identity of the black people in America. By raising the consciousness of the need to reflect on the issues that affected the black population, he succeeded in attracting the attention of researchers and academia on the need to explore the unique problems that influenced the shape of the black community, and how it compared with the white majority (Gosciak 762-63). As such, it is clear that McKay placed New York on a pedestal, as a city that was occupied by people of different cultural backgrounds, and a black community that was struggling to find its niche.
Claude McKay remains one of the most celebrated writers in the class of the Harlem Renaissance. A lot of criticisms arose after his death, particularly focussing on his rather straightforward and direct attacks on the whites. Similarly, it can also be said that McKay’s work was general and lacked anything unusual – a lot of literary works at that time were easily predictable. However, in the recent past, scholars have started appreciating the impact of McKay’s writing and advocacy. He is famed for his fascination with the color debate, and the subject of racism, noting that the United States was lagging behind in recognizing the rights and the contributions of the black people. McKay helped in creating the narrative of freedom that gained speed in the years between 1930 and 1960, ending in the enactment of the civil rights that gave the black people fundamental freedoms.
“Claude McKay: 1889–1948.” Poetry Foundation,. Accessed 8 Oct. 2016.
Gosciak, J. “Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance.” African American Review, vol. 43, no. 4, 2009, pp. 762-763.
McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die” The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson, Floating Press, 2009, pp. 167-68.