If We Must Die by Claude McKay

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If We Must Die by Claude McKay Clearly provocative and even chilling, “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay stirs deep and powerful emotions in any who reads it. A poem inspired by violent race riots, it serves as a motivating anthem representative of an entire culture. Graphic and full of vengeance this poem is demanding action, not telling a story. McKay utilizes imagery to its fullest extent creating an end result which any man or woman, black or white, who has ever felt the hard and hateful hand of oppression can relate to. Written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, one could hardly mistake it for anything so pleasant. Sonnets being traditionally used for beautiful, appealing topics, already there is contradiction between form and substance. The form requires two sections, the first being the first 12 lines and the second consisting of the last two. The substance of the first section is comprised mostly of question while the final lines offer answer and response. The question McKay seems to be asking of his readers is, “How would you like to die- as animal or as man?” Throughout the poem he offers the choice- strong or weak, coward or hero, proud or humble? He acknowledges that “if we must die” and indeed it seems they must, he pleads that it not be like an animal (1). He does not compare them to any animal either, but to the lowest, dirtiest, and most helpless animals American society uses as object of insult. He implores that they “not be like hogs/ Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot “ (1-2). The mere image of a hog would embarrass anyone who was referred to as such. Filthy, weak, and often the victims of ruthless slaughter any who did not follow or agree would be ashamed to admit it. He goes on ... ... middle of paper ... ...fact have the ability to be men. It is not outside their reach or dreams. Full of force and even satisfaction that by doing this, something great will be accomplished, McKay instills in all of his readers the sense that this is the only option that will grant them the dignity they have always desired. With this poem McKay gives to his readers a sense of pride and most of all a sense of hope. It was the hope that maybe someday they would be looked at and treated with the respect that they deserved. Although most agree that this poem was written for blacks and against whites, anyone who has ever felt the pain of victimization or humiliation could easily relate. It gives one the sense that pride is worth something still when all else is gone- that no matter how little one may have left or have had taken away, he or she can never be robbed of his or her pride.

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