Claude McKay: “If We Must Die” and “The Lynching”

The sonnet “If We Must Die” is obviously about the long lasting conflict between white and black people in the early 19th century. The poem uses quatrains to display three different messages to the reader. The structure of the poem was iambic pentameter through out the majority of the poem. There is a traditional Volta after line 8 where the author begins to encourage retaliation. The rhyme scheme is very typical for a sonnet (ABABCDCDEFEFGG). The author also uses the conditional to begin every sentence in the octave.
Lines 1-4 send a message that he and counterparts are under attack. There is an extended simile where blacks are being compared to hogs (castrated male pigs, to be frank, that symbolize the lack of power blacks had in these situations). It goes on to personify the attacker (dogs) to give them a mocking and superior quality. The poem uses this simile to show the brutality and un-human nature of the attack. Notice that the image of hunting is evident through out the poem used to villainize the predator (the racist white people of the time). Lines 5-8 suggest that courage to die honorably instead of like hogs. He uses imagery like “precious blood may not be shed/ In vain” to refer to biblical death of Jesus. Lines 9-12 are the final message to fight back even though they are the under dogs so to speak, and greatly out numbered. The last line of this quatrain he seems to finally comply with death. It is no longer a possibility or theoretical, they are actually looking death in the face. The speaker then makes one last emotional and inspirational statement in the last two lines despite their dire situation. His message is to die a noble death, not like hogs. This sonnet expresses one incident of many in the early 19th century.

The sonnet “The Lynching” is a very profound and intense poem about a common incident of the time. The structure of the poem played a unique roll in especially the rhyme scheme (ABBACDDCEFFEGG) because this created a couplet. These couplets emphasized and heightened the emotion of each thought. I find that the last couplet is very important to illustrate the message that this sinful act of lynching will not go away with the next generation. Due to the “little lads, lynchers that were to be, /Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.” this act remained to be a dark part of life. There was quite a bit of alliteration and consonance through out the poem (about two different same sound usages), which enabled the sonnet to flow well. The lines 1-4 alluded to biblical images and gave this “smoke” or spirit an image of ascending to heaven and being guided by God or “bright and solitary star”. Later on in the poem the “awful sin still unforgiven.” alludes to the men who lynched him creating this fight between good and evil which resonates through the sonnet.

Claude McKay seemed to write about individual and graphic events rather than overall thoughts of this time. These sonnets have similar references to biblical images and events creating this good verse evil theme through an array of allusions and figurative language.

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3 thoughts on “Claude McKay: “If We Must Die” and “The Lynching”

  1. After looking up the origin of “If we must die”; I see what “the fighting” is for. racist riots of white Americans were attacking African Americans in their neighborhoods across America’s cities. This was around 1919. Right after WW1 and before the roaring twenties. It’s almost like a segregation of big cities is starting to happen and the poet wanted to write about fighting back. He keeps reiterating through out the poem that they shouldn’t die like hogs or in vain but as warriors. The towns in the north weren’t always desegregated even in the 1920s. At some point the “white flight” comes when white middle class people go to suburbs on the outskirts of town and the major cities start to have a poorer infrastructure.

  2. As poems that were parts of the Harlem Renaissance, “If We Must Die” and “The Lynching” take advantage of the use of analogies and vivid imagery specifically to emphasize the injustice that was imposed on African Americans in the 1920s through the 1930s. In “If We Must Die,” I agree that comparisons of humans to animals stress the brutal and primal instinct of humans to attack another. I think that the Volta used before the last two lines of “The Lynching” draws further attention on the continued cruel cycle of abuse and killing of blacks. The “little lads” will grow up to commit the same acts their parents; they truly are “lynchers that were to be.”

  3. There did seem to be a wide array of allusions and biblical references applied in those two poems. They seem to be used to stress how serious the conflict between the whites and the blacks is. And, you could have used the word “inhuman” rather than “un-human” but other than that, great job with the analysis.

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