McKay, Claude

United States, (1889-1948)

If We Must Die

  1. If we must die, let it not be like hogs
  2. Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
  3. While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
  4. Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
  5. If we must die, O let us nobly die,
  6. So that our precious blood may not be shed
  7. In vain; then even the monsters we defy
  8. Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
  9. O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
  10. Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
  11. And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
  12. What though before us lies the open grave?
  13. Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
  14. Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

© Claude McKay. Harlem Shadows Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1922.

About the Poet

Claude McKay, (1889-1948), was born Festus Claudius McKay in Sunny Ville, Clarendon Parish, Jamaic. At the age of twenty-three McKay came to the United States, attending Tuskegee Institute and studying agriculture at Kansas State University. In the 1920s he became interested in Communism and traveled to Russia, then to France.

By 1934 McKay was losing faith in Communism. He moved back to the United States and lived in Harlem, New York. There he studied the teachings of various spiritual and political leaders, eventually converting to Catholicism.

McKay’s intellectual viewpoints and poetic achievements set the tone for the Harlem Renaissance. He was respected by younger black poets of the time, including Langston Hughes.

McKay wrote three novels, a collection of short stories, two autobiographical books and several books of poetry. His book of collected poems, Selected Poems (1953), was published posthumously.

Additional information:

Listen to Claude McKay read his sonnet “If We Must Die” via the Internet Archive at

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