The Poem "If We Must Die"
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Different people express their thoughts and feelings in different ways. A lover might a flower to another lover, friends and families may exchange gift items at Christmas. Kisses, handshakes, and hugs are given in different forms to express either love, dearness, respect or dearness, among others. For poets, a poem can be written to represent a flower, a hug, kiss, or handshake among several things. Therefore, we can conclude that poets use their poems as a medium of expression and communication. Poets depict the inner chambers of their feelings, aspirations, thoughts, fantasies, desires, passion and many other things contained in their minds through poems. I will be discussing one of Claude McKay's poems titled If We Must Die. I will also discuss the circumstances that influenced him to write the poem explaining why the poem is representative. Claude wrote the poem as an encouragement to African-Americans in 1919. A time when the lynching and murdering of African-Americans by whites, as well as racial riots became socio-cultural and political issues that evolved to an unbearable peak in America.
An Explanation on what makes the Poem Representative
At the verge of the late 1890 to early 1920s, African Americans found themselves in a situation far worse than what they thought freedom from slavery would have offered them. There were a lot of white supremacy and further exploitation activities peddled against them in the South (U.S. History, 2015). A Majority of African-Americans were jobless and struggled daily to find a place for themselves in the same society where their race had lived as slaves, but now with new identities as free people. Although free, they were not well accepted into the society and as such had limited opportunities that they could exploit to fend for themselves (U.S. History, 2015). It was more of an uncertain existence, than a promising future for African-Americans at that time. Soon after, African Americans started migrating Northward, in search of a better place and future, rather than allow themselves to wallow in self-pity. However, on arrival to the North, Africans-Americans hoped to part-take in the booming economy and fairer laws. Unfortunately, due to the fact that they migrated in large numbers such tens of thousands brought about a cheap labor market in the cities where they settled. White laborers were dissatisfied with the change in wages being offered, courtesy of African-American's arrival (U.S. History, 2015). During this period there were no labor laws that regulated wages, instead the arrival of more African-Americans meant that there was more labor in supply than there was a demand for labor (U.S. History, 2015). Therefore, this caused the wages for labor to drop, and as a result white laborers were furious; and once again, the segregation against African-Americans continued. Regardless of the cold acceptance, African-Americans were very pleased to have left the South and settled in places such as Harlem, New-York. Here, the ability to express themselves and their freedom gave birth to a new culture (U.S. History, 2015). A culture of arts, such as acting, literature, and music.
The next era that followed after this was the prominent racial riots that took place in Chicago and other northern cities. The factories that produced weapons for the First World War were shut down and the demand for labor was beginning to diminish speedily (Layson and Warren, 2014). African-Americans who worked with ammunition manufacturing factories became jobless along with the whites, which in turn reinforced the excessive labor supply (Layson and Warren, 2014). Soon after, the lower and working class white citizens would begin rioting against African-American communities with extreme terror (Layson and Warren, 2014). The racial riots were probably a result of the fact that working class whites thought that African-Americans were a threat to their jobs and their survivals (Layson and Warren, 2014).
During the riots in 1919, Claude McKay wrote a poem titled - If We Must Die. The poem addresses the struggle of African-Americans against discrimination and segregation in the form of an encouragement, insinuating that they should never give up the fight. In the first line of the poem it reads, "If we must die—let it not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot."(1, 2)
The July 1919 riots in Chicago resulted in the homelessness of more than One thousand African-American people, twenty-three blacks and fifteen whites dead (Layson and Warren, 2014). "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"(13, 14) Five hundred and thirty-seven people were injured, out of which three hundred and forty-two were blacks and the rest were whites. At the time of the riot, the population of African-Americans was far less compared to that of the whites in the whole city (Sandburg, 1919 p.2, 3). This was one of the things (McKay, 1919) noted in the poem If We Must Die; "Though far outnumbered let us show us brave/ And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!"(9, 10)
Probably the job competitions and discrimination tensions built up until an incident triggered the racial riots. According to the Carl Sandburg's book The Chicago Race Riots, his account of the reasons for the racial riots was that; the riot was compelled by the drowning of an African American "A colored boy swam across an imaginary segregation line. White boys threw rocks at him and knocked him off a raft" (Sandburg, 1919 p.1). The refusal of a policeman to arrest the white boys who had assaulted the seventeen-year boy who drowned from the assault led to a chaos between the blacks and whites at the beach (Sandburg, 1919 p.1). This chaos further escalated into the racial riot that started on July 27th, 1919 and lasted for a week until the police intervened (Layson and Warren, 2014). It is important to note that the migration and resettlement of African-American in the northern and western parts of America influenced the birth of the Harlem Renaissance (USHistory.org, 2015). The period marked one of the tribulations experienced as a result of discrimination and segregation; and how African-American thrived, suffered, coped and reinvented themselves through the years in America.
The poem encouraged the interest of African-Americans to fight to the death if it required them to defend themselves and their dignity against discrimination and prejudice. As (McKay, 1919) puts it, "If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain." (5, 6) Further indicating that they, African Americans had nothing to lose, but more to gain even if they died defending themselves, "What though before us lies the open grave?"(12)
In conclusion, Claude McKay's poem If We Must Die, expresses and reflects an era of struggle for equality and respect by African Americans after the great migration from the south. It is also known to be one of the best literature works done by an African-American during the Harlem renaissance period. Regardless of its artistic attribute, the poem was written with the intention to provide moral support to African-American communities whenever they resisted intimidation. It also provides a sense of worth to African-Americans; considering the worthless way they have been treated by the unaccepting American society of the 1920s up until the 1970's.