Claude McKay: Father of Jamaican poetry

My Jamaican 55

By Howard Campbell
Observer senior writer

Sunday, July 16, 2017

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This is the 34th in our daily entertainment series highlighting 55 Jamaicans who broke down barriers and helped put the country on the world stage. Each day one personality will be featured, culminating Independence Day, August 6.

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 honor us though dead!

Oh, Kinsmen! 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 murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

If We Must Die — Claude McKay

TO many, McKay's impassioned call for a stand against racial oppression in the United States is his signature poem. His prolific pen crafted many a gem, but If We Must Die was a rallying cry inspired by the 1919 Red Summer incidents in that country.

Like Marcus Garvey, McKay was Jamaican. Both were major players in the vaunted 1919-40 Harlem Renaissance that helped shape the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

McKay was born in Clarendon and began writing poetry in his teens. His work took on a more militant tone when he migrated to the United States to attend college in 1912 and experienced institutionalised racism.

The Lynching Poem and The Barrier are other examples of McKay's defiance against Jim Crow laws in the southern US which prevented blacks from enjoying even basic human rights.

If We Must Die, and McKay, have endured. Graduates at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania have launched Harlem Echoes, an organisation dedicated to the poet and his work.

In a 2015 post, the group said If We Must Die remains relevant given the racial incidents that took place in the United States during President Barack Obama's eight-year term.

“This poem is a call for liberation, and its relevance endures because racial violence in 2015 is a similar reflection to the violence in 1919. The poem's power persists because racism persists. If We Must Die was written during a time of great distress for African-Americans, known as the Red Summer. During the summer of 1919, race riots spread through multiple cities, both in the North and South. Racial tensions heightened and African Americans fought against this country's injustices. A violent race war was taking place. By reading If We Must Die, you can understand how it resonates with the African American experience. This poem ultimately led African-Americans to embrace McKay as their own.”

McKay died from a heart attack in Chicago in 1948 at age 58.




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