Photo of the poet, novelist and short story writer Claude McKay

“I know the dark delight of being strange, The penalty of difference in the crowd, The loneliness of wisdom among fools . . . ” Claude McKay

If We Must Die

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!

– Claude McKay

Mckay says of this sonnet that it is ” … a poem that makes me a poet among colored Americans.” Nonetheless, it is a poem that inspires many of the world’s peoples in their struggles for justice. Though The Poet by Day does not endorse violence, the poem is shared today because of  – among other things – its historic significance. It was published in the July 1919 issue of The Liberator. McKay wrote the poem as a response to mob attacks by white Americans upon African-American communities during Red Summer (1919). The poem was reprinted in The Messenger and the Workers’ Dreadnought (London) later that year. The poem was also read to Congress that year by Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican Senator from Massachusetts. Wallace Thurman considered the poem as embodying the essence of the “New Negro*” movement as it was not aimed at arousing sympathy, but rather consisted of self-assertion. The poem was recited in the film August 28: A Day in the Life of a People and during Episode 3, Season 4 of The Man in the High Castle (TV series) (air date of November 15th, 2019) prior to a dangerous mission against an authoritarian regime. 

* “The New Negro”, a term of the Harlem Renaissance implying an assertive advocacy of dignity and a refusal to submit quietly to the practices and laws of Jim Crow racial segregation.  

Portrait of McKay in 1920 / Public Domain

CLAUDE McKAY (1889-1948) was a Jamaican writer and poet, a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote five novels including: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller that won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), Banana Bottom (1933), and in 1941 a manuscript called Amiable With Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem which remained unpublished until 2017. McKay also authored collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, Gingertown (1932), two autobiographical books, A Long Way from Home (1937) and My Green Hills of Jamaica (published posthumously in 1979), and a non-fiction, socio-historical treatise entitled Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940). His 1922 poetry collection, Harlem Shadows, was among the first books published during the Harlem Renaissance. His Selected Poems was published posthumously, in 1953.

McKay also wrote Romance in Marselle, recently unearthed after ninety years in archive and published this year by Penguin Classics. It ” traces the adventures of a rowdy troupe of dockworkers, prostitutes, and political organizers–collectively straight and queer, disabled and able-bodied, African, European, Caribbean, and American. Set largely in the culture-blending Vieux Port of Marseille at the height of the Jazz Age,” The publisher calls it, “The pioneering novel of physical disability, transatlantic travel, and black international politics. A vital document of black modernism and one of the earliest overtly queer fictions in the African American tradition.” McKay never came out but it is widely believed that he was bisexual.

McKay with Grigory Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin in 1923 / Public Domain

McKay was attracted to communism in his early life though he asserted that he never became a member of the Communist Party USA. Some scholars dispute this claim, due to his close ties to active members, his attendance at communist-led events, and his months-long stay in the Soviet Union in 1922–23, which he wrote about very favorably. Over time McKay became disillusioned with communism. By the mid-1930s had begun to write negatively about it. By the late 1930s his anti-Stalinism isolated him from other Harlem intellectuals. In 1942 he converted to Catholicism and left Harlem. He worked for a Catholic organization until his death.

This post was complied with material from my bookshelf, Wikipedia, Amazon, and YouTube. I believe that McKay’s poems are all in the public domain at this point.  HIs U.S. Amazon Page is HERE.

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