Claude McKay, born in Jamaica in 1890, and considered by many to be the first intellectual of the Harlem Renaissance, moved to New York in 1915 to join the burgeoning literary scene. As a result of a summer of race riots in 1919, McKay penned what is designated as his most important literary contribution: “If We Must Die.” Because of the revolutionary, yet universal, nature and tone of the poem, much literary criticism has been rendered in an attempt to further show how the sonnet continues to be transfigured in socio-political, literary, and historical contexts.
Summary of Material The volume of material to be found on McKay’s “If We Must Die” is vast. However, in regard to the specific thesis of this paper, the information is limited. This is perhaps due to the lack of specific insights into the affects of the work within the context of women’s issues and the absence of any research on how the work was received in the white literary circles of the time. Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” considered by many to be the “inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance,” speaks to the traditional ideal of black masculinity while simultaneously demonstrating the tension between racial and gendered utterances.
Women’s suffrage was in its infancy and the literary world’s regard for Black or ethnic literature was almost non-existent. The racial climate in America was gauged by a lynch-mob mentality and morally corrupt legislation. Black literature was a distant afterthought in literary circles, thus making the relevance of the Harlem Renaissance that much more important and its participants future literary giants. “If We Must Die” is, at face value, a product of its time, but more important its universality and protest speech will help to sustain its importance in the future of literary criticism.
History of the Criticism of the Work
There have been a number of different critical approaches to this particular poem. However, the dominant approach or analysis is exegetical in nature.1 For example, after Sir Winston Churchill used McKay’s “If We Must Die” in a speech before the House of Commons during World War II, there was a firestorm of literary intrigue surrounding the works of McKay. One of the first critics to give proper attention to McKay was M. B. Tolson, an American poet, journalist, and dramatist.
He noted that McKay saw poetry as being “… urged out of my blood (Tolson 318).” McKay would later say of his poetry: “I have never regarded myself as a ‘Negro’ poet. I have always felt that my gift of song was something bigger that the narrow limits of any people and its problems (318).” Though McKay’s sonnet is as expressive a verse as is perhaps possible, the predominant critical analyses of the poem is not. This is perhaps because of the form that McKay chooses to use in order to convey such revolutionary thought. Traditionally, the sonnet is verse reserved for romantic thought. McKay’s use of the form revolutionizes the sonnet. Early critics of the work were intrigued by McKay’s use of the sonnet and saw it as being as revolutionary as the language and tone of the poem.
After 1954, and the renewed interest in McKay’s work, “If We Must Die” became the benchmark by which most of the protest poetry (and poetry for that matter) of its time period was judged. This new critical look at the Harlem Renaissance enabled future critics to focus on the more universal implications that the Black writers had on the American literary canon. In the 1970s the critical emphasis toward the poem changed once again. It came from a most unlikely incident: the Attica Prison uprising. In its long cover story on Attica, Time Magazine reported: “They passed around clandestine writings of their own; among them was a poem written by an unknown prisoner, crude but touching in its would-be heroic style (Burke 25).”
This was followed by four lines of “If We Must Die.” This blatant oversight so angered the Black literary community that a number of prominent Black literary figures wrote letters of protest to Time Magazine. Virginia Burke lambasted Time and was one of the first critics to call for an extensive reexamination of McKay and the Harlem Renaissance and how it was being taught in the American public school system.
She, along with Gwendolyn Brooks, argued that if Time could make such a mistake, it must be due to ignorance that could be found on the public school level. So, there was a push in literary circles to find a place for Black literature within the American canon; and to reach beyond the known writers such as Hughes, Wright, and Johnson. Today the criticism of McKay’s sonnet is more concerned with its political correctness (as relates to gender universality) and its racial implications. The work seems to fluctuate in its importance. At the moment, with the current disregard for classical form that is pervasive in Black poetry, the poem’s influence has fallen.
Gloster, Hugh M. “Fiction of the Negro Renascence: The Van Vechten Vogue.” Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1948. Gloster’s discussion of McKay’s works conclude that he capitalized on the sex, exaggeration, and libertinism that was first utilized by Carl Van Vechten in his novel Nigger Heaven. Bronz, Stephen H. Roots of Negro Consciousness, The 1920s: Three Harlem Renaissance Authors. New York: Libra, 1964.
Discussion of the major events in McKay’s life and an analysis of their effect on his work. Bronz traces McKay’s poetry, fiction, and prose within the context of his life: his Jamaican heritage; his immigration to the United States; his reaction to American racism; his expatriate years in Russia, Europe, and Northern Africa; and his eventual return to America as a forgotten writer. Keller, James R. “‘A Chafing Savage, Down the Decent Street:’ The Politics of Compromise in Claude McKay’s Protest Sonnets.” African American Review Aug. 1994: The contrast between form and content in McKay’s Protest sonnets. The author sheds light on the fact that McKay uses the Romantic Sonnet to express revolutionary ideas.