The Poem “If We Must Die”, by Claude Mckay portrays the deep feelings felt during the conflict between blacks and whites in America in the early 20th century. It was during these years that riots related to race were experienced in the United States of America. The whites would attack the blacks and vice versa.
Many black writers living in Harlem in 1920’s became involved in a Renaissance so as to provide a voice to the masses about these attacks. A grouping of artists and writers combined to form a movement whose pride was in their endeavors. The Renaissance was fueled by migrations of African-Americans from Caribbean and Manhattan and soldiers returning from World War I who felt pride in their military escapades. It was under such circumstances that the poem “If We Must Die” was born (Hutchinson, 62)
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The poem was a wake up call for the blacks to stand up and fight for their rights. They were to do so valiantly and with courage since the oppression they faced was too much to bear. The riots had wrought havoc in the country and were characterized by savage acts, massacres, tragedy and unjustifiable deaths of blacks. The poem thus became an inspiration to black so that they could resist the attacks. Its popularity grew to an extent that come World War II, the British PM, Churchill applied it as a motivation in fighting the Nazi under Adolf Hitler.
Perhaps a look at the writer’s life may provide an insight on what the poem was all about. Claude McKay was born in 1890 in Jamaica. He grew up in a black society in the times when color-conscious culture was a norm. He was ambitious and educated despite belonging to a minority race. Mckay imagination led him to love literature where he saw an opportunity to expand his thoughts in poetry. The first works in form of two books was done whilst still in Jamaica in the local dialect. He entered USA in 1912 and soon became aware of evils of racism. This made a rebel out of him and he was to find himself yearning to right the wrong. The extent to which racism was eating the society disillusioned him that he sought a way to express it, hence this poem and many others.
McKay uses a number of styles in the poem such as the octave, sestet and mockery. The sonnet’s language is in the iambic pentameter and this means that the couplet carries the message across. Imagery is utilized, in cases where tropes come in to play. Tropes bring about the helplessness and relentless of the people faced with oppression. His articles and essay had to do with blacks issues like civil rights; community based ethnic development and ethnic pluralism in America and the world (Holt and Winston, 5)
The themes which can be deduced in this poem are; Honor, Bravery, Purpose, Identity, Alienation, Rebellion, Community Development, Mortality, Masculinity and Men, and Warfare.
Bravery: McKay appeals to his people to resist with courage and determination those who would murder them. The black people were by then desperate and rebellion was rife. This can be interpreted as instilling bravery on fellow blacks who were undergoing tough times. The opening line “If we must die” is supposed to encourage bravery to the fighters to go out there and act regardless of the consequences. This is also seen in the line encouraging people to face the murderous, cowardly pack like men.
Mortality: McKay displays death as inevitable and part of human life. His fantasies about death exceed those of Emily Dickinson and other Romantic poets like Keats. The poet is not actually just fantasizing death but facing it. He seems more preoccupied by the way he dies rather if it happens and how. Death here becomes, as in Greek mythology, a show of purpose, strength and nobility. Death is a reality to them as shown in the line ending â€¦before us lies the open grave.
Warfare: The impression crated in the poem is one of a brewing war. McKay urges his people to fight bravery regardless of whether they die or not; and death is likely. It seems his people are overpowered and it is them who look as being hunted, hence the need to retaliate. By using the ritual of hunting as an image, we observe from traditions that the purpose is to kill, as it turns out when one is hunting an animal. In such a circumstance, there are no rules of engagement and every means is welcome. The imagined enemy is using force to fight and force must also be used against them. There is a call to never give up. “Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back”, is a scenario common in war.
Masculinity: The whole business of fighting either bravery or nobly is associated with men. Men are from time immemorial known to be violent. The assertion that they fight honorably is used to differentiate between cowards and real men. Masculine imagery is used to enforce acts of war and hunting. All the words of the poem can only refer to men talk since history also depicts men as warriors.
Honor: Through out the poem are acts that the speaker feels should be treated with honor and respect. From this ideology, he assumes they are oppressed and therefore are justified to fight honorably and die honorably. It should not be a matter of concern the lack of rules, revenge and unstoppable bravery as long as people fight and die for a just cause. It is in death where honor is bestowed and regarded more than life with oppression. Line eight summarizes this theme, “shall be constrained to honor us though dead!” (Shmoop, 2010)
Rhetorical strategies: Rhetoric is divided in to taxis which deals with the argument structure and the way lines and phrases contribute to effective understanding. Lexis on the other hand deals with emotions that appeal to human conditions. Both of these forms are meant to sway the ignorant listeners and provoke a reaction. Tropes such as metaphor and irony are types of rhetoric that have been used in the poem.
Examples of rhetoric are thus: Hogs are castrated male pigs and this rhetoric refers to the way people die without choice as they are hunted by vicious dogs. By choosing hogs, the writer wants to bring about the powerlessness of the enemies. Pigs usually don’t die in a noble way and this is a depiction of the kind of death awaiting the oppressed in the pursuit of their rights. Line three, “hunted and penned in an inglorious spot”, goes on to show the aspect of being trapped in a pen; just as pigs.
Dogs have been used to represent the enemy in the poem. The image brought up is in form of vicious dogs which stir a kind of fear to the listener. In comparing hungry dogs hunting their prey to the enemies, the poet wants to bring about the inhuman aspect associated with them. The dogs are “mad and hungry” is a kind of extended metaphor which denotes their purpose of being killing beasts. There is an irony in the way dogs are portrayed as mocking the enemy; a hungry dog would not necessarily play with food.
Christian imagery: The shedding of “precious blood” can be associated with biblical story of the death of Jesus whereby his death is seen purposeful redeeming man.
An Address to the Slaves of the United States: It was addressed to African-American slaves who were undergoing a harsh life. The writer points out that slavery had created a gap between the oppressor and the oppressed. A message of hope is given to the people in the notion that slavery is sooner going to be a thing of the past. As people increase and get enlightened, those perpetuating slavery are loosing their hold because of the pressure. The blacks have presented a number of grievances and they are given an assurance that they will be acted upon. The general world is also blamed since they just look down to the plight of the blacks as they continue to be oppressed (Chapman, 372)
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A history spanning some two hundred and twenty years provide the hopes and expectation people had as they migrated in to the New World. Most of them had never enjoyed liberty and peace but were met by corruption, cruelty and slavery. Finally, the time had come for emancipation to take place and hence the rallying calls in the “address”. It is astounding to note that over three million people were even denied to read the Bible, the only material that could provide hope in the face of adversity. Colonists, the British, had taken slavery to a higher level by embracing its advantage and this led to people fighting for independence and liberty. Slavery brought a lot of misery to the people.
Quoting form the Bible, the writer uses its teaching to rebuke slavery in every manner and urge his fellow citizens and brothers to stand up and resist this evil. The story of Israelites in captivity in Egypt and eventual redemption is one such teaching. Further analogy relates selling and buying slaves is compared to the same act people regard beasts. Apart from the normal transaction of man as a beast, other barbaric activities took place like separating children from parents, raping young women and forced labor.
In concluding the address, the masses are given a choice between death and liberty. Many heroes and martyrs are named to influence those who would be cowardly to face the fight they are about to embark on. The fight will rely on all these inspiration and the search for freedom all coupled by the fact that they are numerous; four million sufferers (Widmer, and Ted, 314).
Comparison to other works
This address compares to McKay poem “If We Must Die” in the sense that both are used to inspire people in to action. Both are filled with imagery that captures the imagination of people and compel them to act or be annihilated by social evils taking place. For example, McKay uses a line “though far outnumbered let us show us brave” and this can be compared to the Garnet statement that “we are four million”. Boldness and courage are felt in both works since they stood to provide a voice to the masses.
Vernacular tradition: This refers to the tradition of poetry that was common to African-Americans in the 19th century. Such inspiring works were common in vernacular tradition and almost all had to do with a quest for freedom. In the vernacular tradition chapters dealing with spirituals, gospel and secular rhymes, the themes are similar and are closely tied to the message in the poem.
Harlem Renaissance: Harlem renaissance played a major role in showing that blacks too had literary abilities by contributing much towards poetry, music and art. It also brought out pride and dignity amongst black in the face of oppression by the majority whites (Haskins J. et al, 152).
In conclusion, the “poem” as well as the “address” brings about a sense of hate to an evil that is making people miserable. This hate is too strong and can be complemented by love one feel for his country; America in the New World was meant to be a place devoid of all oppression and an utopia to live in. much time was wasted to bring it to this end that vernacular tradition writers felt must not be so. Bearing in mind that all people are created equal and therefore have equal rights, racism becomes a major hindrance towards achieving the universal goal of brotherhood (Axelrod et al., 453)
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