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“If We Must Die”: Claude McKay Limns the “New Negro”

Hundreds of writers and artists lived in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s and were part of a vibrant, creative community that found its voice in what came to be called the “Harlem Renaissance.” Alain Locke’s 1925 collection The New Negro—a compilation of literature by and essays about “New Negro” artists and black culture—became a “manifesto” of the movement. Some of black America’s foremost writers contributed stories and poems to the volume. The work of these artists drew upon the African-American experience and expressed a new pride in black racial identity and heritage. Several factors accounted for the birth of the movement and propelled it forward. By 1920 the once white ethnic neighborhood of Harlem in upper Manhattan overflowed with recent African-American migrants from the South and the Caribbean. Black soldiers returning from World War I shared a new sense of pride, militancy, and entitlement, as expressed in Claude McKay’s 1919 protest poem "If We Must Die."

"If We Must Die"

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 accursed 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!

Source: Claude McKay, “If We Must Die,” in Harlem Shadows: The Poems of Claude McKay (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922).

See Also:The Harlem Renaissance: George Schuyler Argues against "Black Art"
The Harlem Renaissance: Zora Neale Hurston's First Story