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Social Conditions During “If We Must Die”

McKay wrote the sonnet “If We Must Die” in 1919. The audience for this poem was the Black community that was suffering violence due to white supremacy. Even though slavery had been abolished decades earlier, Black people still experiences social injustices. McKay urges his kinsmen to be courageous in the fight against oppression (McKay). The poem is a call to action Black people not to remain silent as they face social and racial discrimination. Dying without fighting is synonymous to being caged, and the death of such a person would only serve to benefit their oppressor. On the other hand, dying with honor meant fighting against the unjust conditions so that bloodshed would not be in vain.

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The poem was written at a time when Black people were denied basic rights that white people enjoyed. For instance, the Jim Crows laws enforced segregation and ensured that Black people remained second-class citizens. It was also difficult for them to secure well-paying jobs as most jobs were reserved for white people. In addition, they faced the constant threat of death because hate groups such as the Ku Klax Klan lynched them (Vorwerck). It was during this time and under these conditions that McKay wrote “If We Must Die”. He incited his community to resist these forms of violence.

As a black writer in Harlem, McKay felt he needed to speak on the social afflictions of his community. Harlem was a place inhabited by many Black people, and many of them were writers, poets, and artists. These people used art and literature to speak about their social conditions. Therefore, McKay drew on his experiences as a black writer in Harlem to write this poem on bravely fighting against oppression.

Works Cited

McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.” Poetry Foundation, n.d., Web.

Vorwerck, Molly. “’If We Must Die’: 100 Years After Red Summer, Claude Mckay’s Poem Resonates Anew.” USA Today, 2019. Web.

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StudyCorgi. 2023. "Social Conditions During “If We Must Die”." January 9, 2023. https://studycorgi.com/social-conditions-during-if-we-must-die/.

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StudyCorgi. (2023) 'Social Conditions During “If We Must Die”'. 9 January.

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