McKay on "If We Must Die"
Among my new poems there was a sonnet entitled "If We Must Die." It was the most recent of all. Great events had occurred between the time when I had first met Frank Harris and my meeting with Max Eastman. The World War had ended. But its 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.
Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted. We did not separate from one another gaily to spend ourselves in speakeasies and gambling joints. We stuck together, some of us armed, going from the railroad station to our quarters. We stayed in our quarters all through the dreary ominous nights, for we never knew what was going to happen.
It was during those days that the sonnet, "If We Must Die," exploded out of me. And for it the Negro people unanimously hailed me as a poet. Indeed, that one grand outburst is their sole standard of appraising my poetry. It was the only poem I ever read to the members of my crew. They were all agitated. Even the fourth waiter - who was the giddiest and most irresponsible of the lot, with all his motives and gestures colored by a strangely acute form of satyriasis - even he actually cried. One, who was a believer in the Marcus Garvey Back-to-Africa Movement, suggested that I should go to Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the organization, and read the poem. As I was not uplifted with his enthusiasm for the Garvey Movement, yet did not like to say so, I told him truthfully that I had no ambition to harangue a crowd.
That afternoon with Max Eastman was spent in a critical estimation of my verse. He decided to publish a page of it. When I departed I left some of the verses but took with others the "If We Must Die" sonnet. I wanted Frank Harris, whom I had not seen for many months, to see it. I had always remembered his criticism and rejection of "The Lynching," and now I wanted to know if in "If We Must Die" I had "risen to the heights and stormed heaven," as he had said I should.
At that time Pearson's Magazine had its office in the same building as The Liberator. Frank Harris had me ushered in as soon as I was announced. "And where have you been and what doing all this time, my lad?" he roared, fixing me with a lowering look. All his high exhibitionism could not conceal the frank friendliness and deep kindliness that were the best of him. "Now what have you done to be called a real poet, to join the ranks of the elect? Have you written a GREAT poem yet?" I produced "If We Must Die." He read it at once. Then he 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."
I said that I was sorry, but the poem had already been accepted by The Liberator. "What? It belongs to me," Frank Harris thundered. "The Liberator be damned! I gave you the inspiration to write that sonnet and I want to have the credit of publishing it. In the next number of Pearson's. I'll play it up big."
But I said I couldn't do that; I would have to ask Max Eastman's permission. "No, you won't," roared Frank Harris. "Do you think I am the kind of man to accept a favor from Max Eastman? Why did you bring your poem here, after showing it to him?" Because I wanted him to see what I had done, I said, because I valued his opinion so highly, perhaps more than any other critic's, because his unforgettable words that memorable night of our first meeting were like a fire alive in me, because I so much desired to know if he considered what I had written as an achievement. I was excited and spoke quickly and earnestly. Frank Harris melted a little, for what I said had pleased him. But he was none the less angry.
From A Long Way Home. . New York: Arno-New York Times, 1969.
Many of McKay's published sonnets betray the terms of his search for an ideal racial self. He fixes his own dilemma in the context of the black man's insistent quest for racial authority. Feeling his own increasing burdens as a representative of the race in literature, he engenders himself as a black man who speaks for his race in general and to other black men in particular. His most famous sonnet, "If We Must Die," demonstrates the tension between racial and gendered utterances. The poem presents a traditional ideal of black masculinity:
Written in 1919, in the wake of the Red Scare and the Red Summer of race riots throughout the urban centers of the United States, "If We Must Die" is McKay's bold statement of a masculine, racial strategy. The nobility of his chosen form reaffirmed the conventions of dignity and the structures of address to which the poem's personae aspire. Etched into the consciousness of literate black Americans for generations to come as a model of Afro-American heroism, this poem has become a point of reference for the entire racial experience and a touchstone of the Afro-American entry into subjectivity. As Winston Churchill used it as a rallying cry to call the British into sustained battle against the Nazis, this single poem of renunciation earned McKay an international reputation even beyond his race.
While they speak for the entire race, the militant selves of the poem are in fact explicitly "male." The phrase "If we must die" utters the poem's call to participation, and it gathers meaning through its repetition in the first and second quatrains. The phrase "O kinsmen!" makes that call to participation explicit; the poem's would-be warriors are men. McKay fails to explicate the unique position of women within this embattled black community, choosing instead to talk about the race by imagining the aspirations of black men. The contest for black humanity in the poem is waged exclusively through the battle for black masculinity. Within the poem's rhetoric of pursuing honor and dignty, maleness is one of the spoils of the racial battle. In relation to white men, it is the ultimate mark of heroism. Whatever the position of women, for McKay this battle is between men.
Following Dunbar's footsteps by placing Afro-Americans in the heroic sonnet, McKay is the first to represent a collective Afro-American self within the slender technical boundaries of the sonnet form. In "If We Must Die," McKay gives public voice to other black men who might speak privately for all black people. The poem enacts McKay's powerful struggle for a masculine identity as a black writer in the midst of racial oppression. From the vantage point of his vocation as black writer, he turns to language to relieve the dissonance of his perception of what his life has become upon emigrating from Jamaica and his realization that his native culture of class distinction and apparent civility has ill prepared him for the viciousness of the racism that surrounded him daily. In the poem, McKay ultimately retreats to the social order of his youth with its values of personal honor. Death might come, be it not "inglorious."
"If We Must Die" builds its contrasts not between man and woman but rather man and beast, both terms variously construed. In an essay entitled "A Negro Poet Writes," the Jamaican-born McKay had written earlier of his initiation into American racism: "I ceased to think of people and things in the masswhy should I fight with mad dogs only to be bitten and probably transformed into a mad dog myself?" The resonant figures of bestiality here and in the poem underscore the extent to which McKay was haunted by the terms of his own dehumanization: the hostility and "ignoble cruelty" of what he witnessed in the United States. With his sense of nobility, McKay inherits a good deal of what Wayne Cooper, McKay's biographer, calls "the heroic sentimentalism of Victorian England." British imperialism left its mark on the British West Indies in many ways, and clearly McKay's experience of transplanted Victorian culture informed his writing. In part through his "special friendship" with his British patron, Walter Jekyll, he learned to internalize Victorian myths about male behavior in an aristocratic society. The sonnet form becomes an appropriate battlefield for the contest between McKay's sense of himself as a gentleman and the need to respond to racial violence. The gentlemanly form of the sonnet girds the language of warfare within the codes of nineteenth-century combat. Such codes allow McKay to fight racism on his own terms. With its heroic sentimentality, "If We Must Die" is for McKay the black male "deathblow" that will assure his possession of the rigid ideal of masculinity that comes as the poem's prize.
from "Caged Birds: Race and Gender in the Sonnet." In Engendering Men, ed. Joseph Boone and Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc.
Claude McKays "If We Must Die," the poem most often judged to be the inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance, was first printed above an article on Bolshevism and religion in the July 1919 Liberator. In the eyes of its author, however, the sonnet was unveiled before a group Andy Razaf might have styled as the renaissance's chefs: the black employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad dining car where McKay waited tables. "It was the only poem I ever read to the members of my crew," McKay claimed, and
"they were all agitated" (A Long Way 31). The excited response of McKay's coworkers was to be echoed by the dozens of African-American journals that reprinted the poem repeatedly into the 1920s. The Crusader hailed "If We Must Die" with speed: its September 1919 issue featured the sonnet a few pages ahead of a reprise of Razaf's martial ballad "Dont Tread on Me." The pressing historical stimulus for The Crusaders embrace was the Red Summer, whose color McKay ecumenically traced to "the outbreak of little wars between labor and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between colored folk and white" (A Long Way 31). The immediate goal of the republication was to spark further black boldness in all these battles. To the Crusader, McKays sonnet was the ideal text for a militant sampler. With steely propriety, the poem put forth the creed of a New Negro whose modernity rested on self-defense as much as on Marxism and the metropolis:
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 accurséd 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!
Though "If We Must Die" famously does not designate the racial identities of "kinsmen" and their enemies--nowhere is the "foe" of the speaker revealed to be an "ofay"--it must have struck the Crusader as a poem written to their specifications. Appearing in the wake of the armed African Americans who had made race rioting unprecedentedly dangerous to whites, the sonnet was hard to dissociate from the journal's plea that the weapons of interracial warfare stay double-edged swords. The "I" of the modern lyric, opposed to the collective, if not free from the social determination of individuality itself, here became a "we" promoting the visceral comradeship the Crusader likewise tied to a willingness to die for imagined "kinsmen." The correlation of suicidal retribution with martyrdom on behalf of a blood brotherhood; the rhetorical performance of an evolution from potential animal fear ("If we must die, let it not be like hogs"), to certain masculine fortitude ("Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack"), all seemed to render Crusader policy into iambic pentameter. From the moment "If We Must Die" was reprinted in the journal, McKay was stamped as a Crusader poet of choice, a fluent historian of the magazines postwar code of radical remasculinization.
From New Negro, Old Left (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
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