In the summer of 1919, race riots spread throughout the United States, spurred by the end of World War I. Returning soldiers of all races were looking for employment and tension rose as the number of applicants far exceeded the number of jobs available. The press mixed these racial issues with the concurrent First Red Scare, and soon the conditions were ripe for violence. At the time the riots occurred, poet Claude McKay was working as a waiter on a Pennsylvania Railroad dining car. Through his travels on the railroad, he was able to see the violence spread from city to city, constantly aware that he and his fellow black railroad men might be the white mob’s next targets. As McKay himself has written: “But its [WWI] end was a signal for the outbreak of little wars between labor and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between colored folk and white… It was during those days that the sonnet, “If We Must Die” exploded out of me” (McKay 29-30).
It is also worth stating that at this point McKay was very much a young poet, also trying to sort out what kind of a poet and man he was. His previous poem about white-on-black violence, “The Lynching,” was rejected by Frank Harris, editor of the U.S. edition of Pearson’s Magazine and a personal friend of McKay. Their friendship was still important to McKay, though, and in his memoir he writes that Harris’s encouragement was “like a fire alive in me, because I so much desired to know if he considered what I had written as an achievement” (31). According to his co-workers, the other waiters and staff of the train, it certainly was. One friend wanted him to go to Liberty Hall, an auditorium in Harlem used by Marcus Garvey to espouse his “Back to Africa” message, to read “If We Must Die” to the crowd there, but McKay declined saying, “I had no ambition to harangue a crowd” (30). But if that was not his ambition, to what end did he write?
There is an unmissable militancy in “If We Must Die” though it is clouded with a mournful acceptance of a terrible situation. In it, McKay accepts that the black man must die as a given, but proposes that black men should not take their fate lying down. “If we must die, O let us nobly die” he writes, looking to at least gain some dignity back in death that the white man would not give in life. Though they fought together in World War I, they are now enemies, and McKay calls his fellow black men to arms: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” It is not a triumphant poem; it is not a celebration of a victory but rather an acknowledgement of black men’s humanity, their will to live and fight and survive against all odds. But McKay realizes that this fight will still not be enough and he sees that “What though before us lies the open grave?” It is an acceptance of death as a likely outcome so long as the tensions between white and black men remain a part of American culture.
When he finished writing “If We Must Die,” McKay brought it to Frank Harris, wondering if he had “‘risen to the heights and stormed heaven,’ as he had said I should” (30). Had McKay’s passion and intensity finally shone through in his work? Had he discovered who he was as a poet? Harris “slapped his thigh and shouted, ‘Grand! Grand! You have done it. That is a great poem, authentic fire and blood; blood pouring from a bleeding heart. I shall be proud to publish it in Pearson’s’” (30). This was unfortunately not going to be possible, since McKay had already sold the poem to The Liberator just prior to bringing it to Harris. Nevertheless, Harris’s approval was proof enough that McKay had found his voice and delivered a passionate rallying cry that would resonate far and wide. “If We Must Die” is a powerful example of how personal experiences can become universal and take on even more potency as it spreads throughout a group, a nation, and the world.
McKay, Claude. “Chapter 2: Other Editors.” A Long Way from Home. Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2007. Print.