Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer
When Claude McKay wrote If We Must Die, it was in response to the period called Red Summer in the United States (US), where whites attacked blacks in in 1919. It was the post-World War I period and black soldiers who had been demobilised were back in American society which largely had no place for them.
The most famous quoting of the poem was also related to war, across the Atlantic from where it was written and in circumstances that McKay (who died three years after World War II ended) could hardly have envisioned. For while he wrote If We Must Die to bolster blacks who decided to take a stance against the deadly aggression of whites in the US, the poem was quoted by Churchill in attempting to secure US involvement to fight Germany in what became World War II.
Ironically, England was then Jamaica's colonial master.
In If We Must Die, McKay writes:
"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 honour 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!"
There were those blacks who fought back in the US during Red Summer, when some whites saw blacks as part of the communist threat. Although the conflicts were widespread, with blacks almost invariably having many more fatalities, according to the website www.pbs.org, the most violent encounters were in Chicago, Washington and Elaine (Arkansas). During 13 days of fighting in Chicago, 23 blacks and 15 whites were dead, with 1,000 black families homeless. Six persons - four whites and two blacks - were killed in Washington.
In the Arkansas murders, after a white officer was killed during a shoot-out at a black gathering at a church, it was free-for-all on black people. A large contingent of whites came in from Mississippi, shooting at any black persons they saw. Officially, 25 black people and five whites were killed, but the black death figure was disputed with some claims as high as 200, some bodies tossed in the river or simply left to rot.
McKay's poetry was not enough to push the Americans to join the British in World War II. What words could not do was achieved by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. The naval base was attacked by over 300 Japanese aircraft in a surprise move which lasted about an hour and a half.
In all over 2,300 US citizens died. The US declared war on Japan on December 8, while Germany and Italy declared war on the US on December 11.
World War II has had its mention in Jamaican popular music, among them King Kong singing in Trouble Again:
"It remind me of World War One
But them never have no nuclear weapon
It remind me of World War Two
Still they never have no nuclear weapon"
McKay's 1933 novel Banana Bottom was commemorated by the Calabash International Literary Festival in 2008. Two Fridays ago 'Readings in the Park: Claude McKay to Olive Senior' was hosted in Emancipation Park, New Kingston.