There is a story which connects Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The story goes one of two ways. The first posits that Churchill quoted McKay’s “If We Must Die” to the United States Congress in order to spur the country into joining World War II. The second version has Churchill quoting it in an address to his own countrymen during World War II at the House of Commons. In either story the power of McKay’s words, written in a time of race riots and civil tensions, is said to transcend their original meaning and become a rallying cry for the greater cause of good versus evil. The problem is, however, that there is no record of either version of this story happening. David Freeman abstracts an article by Lee M. Jenkins saying, “In fact, there is no evidence that Churchill cited the poem in any speech. No reference can be found in Hansard or the Congressional Record or The Churchill Centre” (33). Why, then, does the legend prevail? How does this poem enact Peter Middleton’s “long biography,” “the aggregative textual archive that composes the textual memory of the poem, its showing in magazines, performance, anthologies, its construal in reviews and commentaries and other treatments” (23)?
Part of these stories’ enduring popularity comes from McKay’s own style and substance. He is writing in a deliberately British mode and uses the Shakespearian sonnet form to connect his vision of black masculinity to the “heroic sentimentalism of Victorian England” (Cooper, 100). The poem has a bit of the stiff upper lip nobility that England exported to all of its colonies, including McKay’s birth country of Jamaica. The idea that good people should not stand by as evil threatens to overtake everything is a powerful one, and McKay’s words are inspiring to anyone who feels powerless against a greater force.
“If We Must Die” can be seen as a kind of spiritual successor to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Both poems evoke a sense of duty to a cause which, if not lost, is at least in danger of being so.
“If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monster we defy
shall be constrained to honor us though dead!” (McKay).
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.” (Tennyson).
In each poem is a call for violence to meet violence no matter the outcome because the cause is right. Because it is good to fight injustice where it is found and it is right to fight those who would destroy goodness. Churchill, when visiting Yalta, went to the memorial and cemetery which houses the remains of those who died in the Charge of the Light Brigade during the British Crimean War. Tennyson’s poem was a favorite of his, and its legacy continues as Britain retains a deep affinity for those ordered to attack a unit they could not have possibly defeated.
So even if there is no definitive proof that Churchill actually read McKay’s poem to anybody, it is not difficult to believe that he might have. “If We Must Die” borrows heavily from England’s sense of masculinity and nobility, and continues a tradition of valorizing those who fight a losing but honorable fight. It is easy to see how “If We Must Die” could stir a country into action or revitalize a country losing hope in the midst of destruction and chaos. It is a powerful poem which reaches beyond its original context into a greater one, that of the struggle between good and evil. And as a war poem it falls into a category shared by some of the greatest poems ever written, including Churchill’s beloved “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” which could be read as one of those “textual memories” that Middleton writes about, though in this case it is a memory which echoes forward into “If We Must Die” like a ripple disrupted by McKay’s own inciting and insightful rock tossed into the pond of history.
Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance : A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987. Print.
Freeman, David. “Inside the Journals.” Finest Hour 125 (2004): 33. The Churchill Centre. Churchill Centre. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
Middleton, Peter. Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama, 2005. Print.
Tennyson, Alfred, Lord. “Charge of the Light Brigade.” The Charge of the Light Brigade. 1854. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.