The Will to Live & Die for the Greater Good: An Analysis of “If We Must Die” By Claude McKay.

Claude McKay’s poem, “If We Must Die” is written in the style of the traditional English Sonnet, which means a love poem consisting of fourteen lines, except he wrote it with a twist. The sonnet as we know was popularized by William Shakespeare, the same person credited with inventing the English language. Whether that’s hyperbole is beyond my knowledge, but I can surmise Shakespeare wrote so extensively that he practically invented new words, credit where credit is due.

However, McKay steers off a bit from tradition. “WHAT?!” “The audacity!” “How dare he.” Yet, it’s not surprising because creative folks and geniuses love to break the rules. It’s also worth noting the mixing and mashing of different styles and the cross-pollination of cultures is a part of human evolution. The African diaspora(s), for example, influenced so much of American culture like its popular music. To make my case, most experienced musicians (if not all of them) would agree, that you’re allowed to break the rules to create your own sound, add your own style, find your own voice, or improvise a well-known musical piece. That’s a part of the creative process since tradition and repetition can get old and dull quickly.

Now, rather than following the traditional route of a love poem, Claude McKay added flair and wrote about something completely different! The title itself grabs your attention and will make you pause for a minute, “If We Must Die.” “If we must die…” then what? Did he purposely title it that way to create a sense of suspense? Or is that the hook of the poem like a hook from a song? Or is he having an existential crisis? It doesn’t appear like he is having one since he says “We” rather than “I.” It begs the question: Can a group of people suffer from a collective existential crisis? And how does the poem relate to the deaths and genocide that occurred to different groups of people or even a hero amongst them?

From the first few lines of the poem, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs, Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,” one of the first thoughts that came across my mind was what I learned from a Hinduism course with Professor Bellamy. Specifically India’s caste system and the factors that led to the four different classes–Brahmins (priests and teachers, Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (farmers, traders, and merchants), and the Shudras (laborers).  Well, did you know that based on that old, backward Indian caste system, there’s another group who are not even worth listing or mentioning because they are considered outside this social construct? They are known as the Dalits, aka “the untouchables.”

One of the articles assigned in that course discussed the stigma of eating pork that came forth because of the caste system and then as a result was associated with the lower classes, including the Dalits. The reason the lower classes ate pork was because it was the cheapest food they could afford. But here’s the kicker and the irony. Many of the same bourgeoisie or uppity folks (who loves the finest and expensive dishes), looked down upon the lower classes for eating pork, yet they discreetly enjoy eating it as well. Look who’s breaking the rules, ignoring stigmas, and stooping down from their imaginary social class.

So, Claude McKay’s use of the word hog can conjure powerful images and correspondences. Perhaps hog is more degrading than saying pig or pork. This could be compared to the dehumanization of Blacks since white Europeans viewed Africans as savages or beasts, treating them as a herd of sheep or cattle, and justifying their actions of rounding them up for slaughter and slavery. But unlike a vicious lion, tiger, or panther, animals like pigs-sheep-cattle are some of the most defenseless or vulnerable animals because they are unable to defend themselves from humans. These are livestock or animals that were domesticated on farms for human consumption. Provided McKay published this poem in 1919, consequently, around the same time as the Race Riots like the Chicago Riot in 1919 and the Tulsa Massacre (1921), it inspired black people to unite. Again, if we must die, as Claude argues, let us (blacks) not perish like hogs.

In the last few lines, Claude wrote, “Though far outnumbered let us show us brave, and for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!” “Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” These lines can be interpreted as a rallying cry or a battle call. If we extrapolate parts of the poem further, if we must die for “who we are,” let us not stoop down to the enemy or the monster’s level of ignorance and dishonor, but let us die with honor and valor.

Similarly, you can compare the poem to the movie “300,” when King Leonidas shouted, “THIS IS SPARTA!”  Which is based on a real historical moment when King Leonidas and 300 Spartans defended their country. Despite the three hundred Spartans outnumbered 100 to 1 (although not outmatched in skills) and backed up against the wall (literally and figuratively), they fought back and died valiantly against the Persian army. Even from the enemy’s point of view, and now looking back on Ancient Greece, there’s a great deal of reverence for their courage.

If we must die, I’d say, go out with a bang and not a whimper, in addition to grace. The human “crisis” may consist of an existential crisis on a personal level, but more than that, a moral crisis when it arises as a social phenomenon at the societal level. Therefore, if necessity dictates, speak out against the oppressors, against tyranny and injustice, and leave self-defense and violence as the last resort. Isn’t that a big part of the reason why the Black Panther Party was created, consisting of black youth and WW2 veterans at the helm fighting back against police brutality? Today, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement reflects decades-old problems of police brutality and mass incarceration as it pertains to people of color.  I’m in the camp that believes or encourages a peaceful revolution rather than a bloody one. But as an old Chinese proverb goes, “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.”

Additional sources:

There’s a great video of an old Japanese Zen story told by Ram Dass that relates to Claude’s poem, on the human condition, and the ethical dilemmas (conflicts) that present themselves in society. Keywords to keep in mind: honor, justice, resistance, sacrifice, ambivalence, benevolence, tolerance, remorse, and self-restraint: Do you know the story of the monk and the army general?

The Monk and the Army General (Samurai) story:

Andrew Olivier© – may be reproduced with acknowledgment

The army general is disemboweling all the monks. His reputation spread far and wide as a cruel, cruel man. He comes into this village, and he says to his adjutant. Tell me what’s happening and the adjutant replies, “All the people are frightened of you, and they are bowing down. All the monks in the monastery have fled to the hills but for one monk.”

He was outraged at this one monk. He gets up and goes to the monastery and pushes open the doors. As he walks into the courtyard there’s the monk standing in the middle of the courtyard. He walks up to him, and says, “Don’t you know who I am? I could run my sword through your belly without blinking an eye.”

“And don’t you know who I am? I could have your sword go through my belly without blinking an eye.” 

The general bowed deeply and left the monk in peace.

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