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Claude McKay

If We Must Die

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1919

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Summary and Study Guide


“If We Must Die” (1919) is a Shakespearean sonnet by Jamaican American poet Claude McKay (1890-1948). While the poem adheres to the traditional sonnet form, it is one of the foundational works of the Harlem Renaissance, a 20th-century movement that featured the work of Black artists mainly centered around Harlem in New York City. McKay wrote the poem in response to mob attacks against Black communities during the Red Summer of 1919, a period when race riots broke out across the country in response to many social and economic tensions of the time (note that some scholars agree “race riot” is a vague or even misleading term, as the conflict was driven by white racist violence). The poem presents a defiant message to persecuted groups, arguing for them to fight back against oppression. The poem is universally considered one of McKay’s best, and its historical significance is deep, as many people and groups facing oppression have appropriated it over the years for many causes. Beyond its cultural significance, critics also laud the poem’s use of form, its imagery, and its passionate energy.

Poet Biography

Claude McKay (1890-1948) was born and raised in Jamaica. McKay began writing poetry at the age of 10 while living with his brother Theo, a teacher. McKay published his first book of poetry in 1912, calling it Songs of Jamaica. This would be the start of a long career.

Also in 1912, McKay moved to the United States to attend Tuskegee Institute, a school built for Black students and initially led by Booker T. Washington, who advocated for skills training to help raise the African American population from oppression. However, McKay eventually found himself inspired not by Washington’s patient approach to civil rights, but by the approach of W. E. B. Du Bois who believed in Black uplift through education and political action.

In 1914, McKay moved to New York City and worked a number of jobs while also continuing to write. McKay also got married, and he and his wife had a daughter, though the marriage did not last, and McKay never met his child. During this time, McKay also became involved with The Liberator, a socialist magazine. McKay’s politics became intertwined with the socialist movement, and he helped find the African Blood Brotherhood, a Black liberation organization.

In 1919, McKay traveled to Europe, where he would end up settling down in London. While in London, McKay worked, wrote, and deepened his Marxist ties, eventually drawing the attention of law enforcement for his socialist beliefs.

After living in London, McKay traveled the world, including communist Russia. During this time, McKay wrote a number of novels, including Home to Harlem (1928).

McKay eventually came back to America and became a citizen in 1940. He died on May 22, 1948, in Chicago from a heart attack. He was 58 years old.

Poem Text

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!

McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.” 1919. Poetry Foundation.


The poem opens with the first-person plural “we,” welcoming the reader into the poem with an if/then statement (called a “conditional statement”): “If we must die, let it not be like hogs” (Line 1). The speaker argues for the “we” of the poem to not die like animals waiting for “mad and hungry dogs” (Line 3) who laugh and deride the cursed to slaughter them. Instead, the speaker says if “we” must die, then that death should be noble. He says dying nobly is the only way to not die for nothing because then the “monsters” who have killed “us” will have to honor “our” fight and resilience.

The speaker then calls upon his people once more, arguing that the time to fight is now. He says the oppressors outnumber his people, but the only way to show bravery is to stand up and face the oppressors. The speaker even says that when the oppressors punch, it is the oppressed people’s responsibility to punch back—and to even kill—if it means victory and freedom.

The poem ends on a bit of a somber note. The speaker says this philosophy of fighting back and defending the group is the only option other than laying down and dying. The speaker says defiance is a human characteristic, and though his people will die even if they do fight, he stresses the distinction of dying while fighting instead of dying after giving up.