Claude McKay spans national boundaries, literary genres (poems, essays, novels, memoirs, etc.), political identities, and even his own particular time. Born in Jamaica in 1890, McKay was a restless and talented young man. In Jamaica, McKay met Walter Jekyll, a white British ex-priest and folklorist, who encouraged McKay to write in his native Jamaican dialect. These interesting, challenging, and politically charged poems filled McKay's first two books. He won a prize for his poetry in 1912. The prize money enabled him to attend the Tuskegee Institute (very briefly), and then he was off to Kansas to study agriculture. His period in Kansas coincided with a highly-active period of the Ku Klux Klan, leading McKay to move to New York in 1914.
In 1919, Washington, DC newspapers ran wild with sensational stories of an alleged sexual assault that was said to be committed by an African American. The stories sparked a series of twenty riots during the summer of 1919, beginning with a white lynch mob that targeted blacks in Washington. There were 28 public lynchings in the first half of the year, and the following summer and fall came to be known as "The Red Summer" of 1919. The Red Summer was the motivation behind McKay's "If We Must Die." However, even if you didn't know the history behind it, the poem is still powerful message, universal enough to relate to any people facing their own destruction.
The Red Summer of 1919 saw a rise in race riots and hate crimes committed by white people against black communities all across America. Chicago, Washington, DC, and the town of Elaine, Arkansas encountered the most violence. For example, in Chicago on July 27, 1919, a boy accidentally swam in an area of Lake Michigan that had been designated for white people only. When the boy was stoned and drowned, a fight broke out between white and black communities that lasted thirteen days. At the end of those thirteen days, dozens had died, over 500 people were injured, and nearly 1,000 black families had lost their homes (source).
Claude McKay wrote “If We Must Die” amid the violence and bloodshed of 1919, and in this poem he encourages his community to take action and to fight back. This message is particularly interesting and striking when we compare it to the work of Langston Hughes, McKay’s contemporary. Not only are McKay and Hughes considered major 20th century poets, but they are also considered to be giants of the Harlem Renaissance movement (Hughes was nicknamed the movement’s poet laureate). However, while Hughes largely wrote poems that cultivated love and reverence for the history and soul of the black community, McKay’s poetry was more of a call-to-arms.
Consider the message of Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1920) in which the speaker says, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” and then invokes the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi Rivers. In doing so, he charts a thread of African and African-American history and connects it to the birth of civilization. Then consider the last two lines of “If We Must Die,” which say, “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,/ Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!” The message here is much more action-oriented and immediate than the more reflective, spiritual tone of Hughes’s work. The speaker in McKay’s poem is not looking at the past, but is examining the present and future. In exploring these two magnificent poets’ work at the same time, we begin to see and understand the very different and complex political, spiritual, and social conversations at play within the black community at this time. We catch a glimpse of history unfolding.
We can also understand Claude McKay as the artistic counterpart to Marcus Garvey, the most popular black nationalist leader of the early 20th century. Both men were born in Jamaica in the late nineteenth century and both left Jamaica in their twenties to attend college – Garvey to England, McKay to the United States. In the 1920s, Garvey founded the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which at one point had nearly 4,000,000 members. When Garvey spoke in New York City, he would draw thousands of people eager to hear his thoughts on racial redemption and of a return to Africa. Because McKay and Garvey grew up in Jamaica and not within the United States, they had different perspectives on race relations and on what the black community should and could do to combat gross injustice. In studying their work and their ideas, we can understand better the diversity of thought and belief within the black community at this time.