This essay was first published in 2015 to commemorate the 95th anniversary of McKay’s literary milestone and in remembrance of the extraordinary Red Summer of 1919. It is now part of an ongoing series of re-posts intended to encourage reflections on Americans’ collective pursuit of racial equality and inspire actions most likely to help achieve it with dignity and intelligence.
As it stands at this moment: One hundred and two years after the initial publication of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay’s masterful poem, “If We Must Die,” America finds itself “reckoning” with the consequences of racial inequality allowed to fester for centuries. It doesn’t take a PhD in antiracism to understand how the highly-publicized violent deaths of African Americans over the past 10 years, and the disproportionate number of Black lives lost to COVID-19 from 2020-2021, dramatically mirror the kinds of systemic racism which prompted McKay to pen his classic lines.
Particularly interesting in 2021, however, is how African Americans’ collective refusal to “die” without fighting back in a variety of ways, has motivated populations in different countries around the world to do the same. Ironically, the tensions driving unrest among different populations “of color” on the global front often have more to do with economic inequalities and charges of political corruption than racial factors. Such, apparently, has been the case recently in South Africa, Haiti, Hong Kong, Myanmar, and Russia. Nevertheless, the motivation behind their will to “fight back” has often been linked via social media and other channels to the ongoing struggles of African Americans to refine practices of democracy in their homeland.
Idea of Post-Racialism a Dream Deferred
There were many good reasons to believe America had entered––or at least was about to enter––a golden era of post-racialism following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Among them was the election of the country’s first African-American president itself, an increasingly diverse American population, and a sociopolitical landscape made more democratic (in appearance at least) by the various influences of technological innovation.
Unfortunately, none of those good noble reasons were able to withstand the onslaught of reality as the number of hate groups in the country began to increase almost immediately, even while the Black prison population and Black unemployment rates continued to do the same. In a word, the country was nowhere near “there” yet.
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.