I was speaking to my students recently about Caribbean poets and Claude McKay came up. Unsurprisingly, they were only vaguely familiar with his name. In some instances I have seen him listed as an American poet, an error which sought to erase his humble Jamaican origins. Born September 15, 1889, in Sunny Ville Clarendon, he eventually made his way across America and Europe, gathering worlds of experiences to himself. He was best known for his invaluable contribution to the Harlem Renaissance in New York and was considered a literary voice for social justice. More than any of his masterfully crafted poems, the one that resonates with me today, is the poem, “If We Must Die”.
A poem that never fails to shake me out of a defeated mindset.
“Though far outnumbered let us show us brave”Tweet
“Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting backTweet
Though this Shakespearean sonnet was written as a rebellion against oppression and its institutions, it is also for me, a call to continue going, to continuing fighting no matter what, even if the victory seems impossible. It bolsters my courage against disappointments, fear and the unseen enemies that attack when you least expect or want them. But most of all, it reminds me that there is no room to surrender or to doubt my strength which comes from the Almighty…
If we must die, let it not be like hogsIF WE MUST DIE – CLAUDE MCKAY
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd 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!