Quick Hit: Happy Birthday, Claude McKay! Celebrating Black Art And Resistance

On this day in 1889, in Clarendon Parish, Jamaica, Harlem Renaissance poet and delegate to the Third International, Claude McKay, was born. McKay’s radical poetry challenged white authority in America and expressed a strong disdain for racism and a “sense that bigotry’s implicit stupidity renders its adherents pitiable as well as loathsome.” McKay was also considered queer and was involved in queer communities around New York, with several of his poems containing references to his sexuality. In addition to being a poet, he was also an activist for civil liberties and racial solidarity, a journalist and an author of fiction.

McKay’s most celebrated poem, If We Must Die, is considered a “signature poem of the Harlem Renaissance.” It was a spirited, revolutionary poem full of solidarity and fighting spirit against the evils and violence of white supremacy. In McKay’s own words, it was a response to an atmosphere that was “morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings.” It was during those days, McKay said, that “the sonnet, “If We Must Die,” exploded out of me.”

In today’s era of heightened racialized terror and the resurgence of white supremacy and violence, remembering McKay’s words on his birthday is especially apt:

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 accursèd 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!
You can read more about Claude McKay, and more of his poetry, here.
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Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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