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Claude McKay

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment is a glimpse into the life and work of poet Claude McKay

Claude McKay

Up to the 1920s, black literature followed a rather conservative bent. The Harlem Renaissance changed all of that. Then, black literature removed "itself once and for all from both its polite and strait-laced conventions and its grinning, dancing, ingratiating manner." That's what the authors of the seminal The Negro Almanac wrote of the 1920s.

One of the leaders of the period was Claude McKay (1890-1948). His poetry was fiery, angry and challenging. It set the stage for the changes in black theater, music and music as well as literature. Much of the work called for change.

McKay's best-known work was a poem, If We Must Die, that set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance.

When Winston Churchill addressed the U.S. Congress as he tried to get American aid during World War II, he concluded with a spirited recitation of MacKay's 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, O 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!

O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!

Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death blow!

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!

Source: The Negro Almanac: The Black Experience in America

Discussion questions

1. What does McKay's poem mean?

2. Did it have a different meaning in the manner in which Winston Churchill used it?

3. Who were some of the notable figures to emerge during the Harlem Renaissance?