If We Must Die by Claude McKay

Compiled by S. Davis & J. Adams – Contributions to WWI & II

A poem of courage for the British Nation in its darkest hour

In World War II, when Britain had her back against the wall and it looked as though Germany was on the brink of invading; in an effort to prepare the British people for this outcome, Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, in his broadcast to the nation quoted the following poem.  

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, oh, 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 honour us though dead!
Oh, kinsman! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murders, cowardly pack
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

What is remarkable, is, that few people at the time realised that the composer of this poem was Black. Written in 1919, it was in fact written by Claude McKay, a Jamaican by birth. It was written to urge black Americans to rise up against the persecution and racism of the time.

Books on McKay

Claude McKay, a black poets struggle for identity, by – Heather Hathaway

Relocating Claude McKay and Paul Marshall, by – Tyrone Tillery

Claude McKay: Selected Poems, Dover Thrift Editions (Paperback)

Claude McKay was one of the most distinguished poets of his time. He was a seminal figure in the Harlem Renaissance and wrote three novels: Home to Harlem (1928), a best-seller which won the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Banjo (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933)……. Often identified as McKay’s finest novel, Banana Bottom tells the story of Bita Plant, who returns to Jamaica after being educated in England and struggles to form an identity that reconciles the aesthetic values imposed upon her with her appreciation for her native roots.

My Black History

Claude McKay – Sparticus Educational