The poem “If We Must Die” is written by Claude McKay during Harlem
Renaissance (1920’s-1930’s). In this era, there was much segregation and racism towards
African Americans. McKay was a Jamaican that moved to Harlem during the Harlem
Renaissance, and his writings were considered influential towards the African American
population. This poem was read at many rallies to inspire the black community as a call
to action to break common stereotypes of the time.
The tone of the poem can be described as motivational and resilient. The tone is
also sort of glorified and inspiring; He states "let us nobly die" and "the monsters...shall
be constrained to honor us." He inspires the audience to be "brave" and to "deal the
deathblow" and to "[fight] back!" He includes such words as “honor,” “noble,” and
“brave,” which conveys a sense of glory or a sense of pride in being African American.
The tone of the poem serves to inspire the black community to break stereotypes of the
time and “deal the deathblow” to certain hate groups, like the KKK. By assuming the
motivational tone, McKay urges the black man to fight against preconceptions and even
though they may die, to “[fight] back.”
The speaker of the poem could be a general influential leader of the African
American community, and could very likely be McKay himself. As aforementioned,
McKay read the poem at many rallies for black rights, as a way to inspire change and
progress. The speaker is most definitely a member of the minority community, because
he assumes the first person plural, constantly using words like “we,” “us,” and
“kinsmen.” By including himself with the community, McKay displays a sense of unity
within the black population. He also indicates that the community must work as a whole
to fight back and to “defy” the “monsters,” which can be viewed as a metaphor for hate
groups and racists.
The audience in the poem is some minority group, because they are “far
outnumbered,” and is most likely the African American population of Harlem. McKay is
responding to some of the stereotypes of the time, such as the white man's belief that
African Americans will accept being treated as "hogs" and will not respond to it, not just
by KKK but by pretty much all of white society. McKay is urging blacks to break that
stereotype and to "fight back." He wants to preserve some honor a dignity for his people,
and even though he knows they “must die” from being in a cruel society, he wishes for
the death to be so “noble” that the enemy “shall be constrained to honor” them. This sort
of “nothing to lose” attitude is the main theme of the poem.