Lived 1889 to 1948 . Born in Jamaica
Claude McKay was one of the most prominent figures of the Harlem Renaissance. His poem "If We Must Die" was one of the first of that era to initiate the revolutionary tone of the cultural movement. Unlike Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer whose prose and poetry dealt with love and the human condition, McKay believed that the job of the poet was to "politically inform the minds of the people." Although he occassionally wrote songs of his Jamaican homeland and poems of love, he was at his best when recording his views on social justice and black life.
As a young man, McKay became interested in Communism. He travelled to Russia and France where he met Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sinclair Lewis. Eventually he became dissilusioned with the Communists, beleiving that they were only using Black Americans to strengthen their numbers and had no real interest in helping to improve their plight. He instead chose to focus his attention on the works and teachings of leaders in Harlem.
McKay's viewpoints and poetic achievements are often credited with setting the tone for the Harlem Renaissance. He gained the deep respect of other poets of the time, including Langston Hughes.
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 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!