In the current era, a highly-publicized disproportionate threat to African Americans due to unnatural causes––specifically, violence inflicted upon unarmed African-American men and women by armed policemen–– has been acknowledged by the Black Lives Matter Movement, the United Nations, and numerous social justice organizations around the world. A similar threat in 1919 existed in the form of lynching, essentially the practice of murder by hanging, then often castrating, and often burning African-American men.
Barely 10 years old at the time, the NAACP stood as almost the sole voice of protest against the socially-accepted and legally-tolerated practice. The simple reason is because in 1919 Jim Crow laws were exactly that: laws which openly supported an apartheid government and society in America.
Whereas the more overt apartheid legislation has been repealed, in 2015 there was much talk of a “New Jim Crow” [now described as Jim Crow 2.0 in 2021]. That Blacks and Whites have made tremendous advances in securing social and political equality for all Americans is something most reasonable thinkers would not deny. The conditions as they existed in 1919 were the kinds that challenge poets of any race to prove the significance of their craft. In the case of Harlem Renaissance author Claude McKay (1889 –1948) they prompted him to pen the classic poem “If We Must Die”:
IF WE MUST DIE
Poetry has often proven an effective instrument for amplifying the voices of those who believe they have been targeted for unfair social and political discrimination; or, worse, tagged for a campaign of potential genocide. Where McKay’s powerful lines are concerned, the author noted the following in his 1937 autobiography, A Long Way from Home:
“Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted… It was during those days that the sonnet, ‘If We Must Die,’ exploded out of me…”
Encouraged by the support of friends, editors, and publishers, the Jamaican-born McKay considered “If We Must Die” both a critical and a political triumph. The distinct rhyming scheme and compact 14 lines of the poem make it easily identifiable as a sonnet. Yet it is a very different kind of sonnet from those with which a reader might associate poets such as Countee Cullen, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Rainer Maria Rilke.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.