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!
Winston James’ latest book is a biography of the author of this powerful and passionate poem. Festus Claudius “Claude” McKay was 28 years of age in 1919 when he wrote those defiant words. Though still a relatively young man, he was already a celebrated writer in Jamaica, the land of his birth.
That fact alone is noteworthy. As this book’s cover photograph and subtitle highlight, its subject is young, gifted, black and therefore part of the island’s marginalised majority. There was an increasing struggle against British colonial rule, but independence was still half a century away when McKay left his homeland.
In the opening chapters of this book James carefully weaves the Mckay’s family narrative into an exploration of dynamics of a brutally oppressive society.
Despite being a “son of the soil” and the grandchild of enslaved Africans, McKay’s early life was comparatively privileged. Though his father Thomas had been born illiterate, he gradually amassed enough land to set his family up in “an economic position that was not unique but extraordinarily rare”.
This wealth “provided the material underpinnings of Thomas Mckay and his family’s self confidence and poise.” Armed with this sense of self worth and an inquisitive mind, Claude left the land of his birth in 1912. Despite numerous promises he never returned, but instead travelled widely and lived in a number of different places including the United States, Europe and Morocco.
But at the heart of James’s book is the assertion that, regardless of where he was based, McKay’s world view was fundamentally shaped by his early life in Jamaica. He argues that in those formative years McKay was “exceptionally sensitive” to the transformations that were taking place and that he was “shaped politically by them”.
It is for this reason that more than half of the book is dedicated to a consideration of the social and political developments in turn of the century Jamaica.
The book’s subtitle is intriguing. McKay was certainly not a fully fledged socialist by 1912. His close quarter experience of Jamaica’s upheavals had, however, led to a profound understanding of the fundamental divisions in society. This was not least as a result of a short but “traumatic and radicalising” period spent as a member of the police force.
Increasingly McKay sympathised with the oppressed and exploited and sought to capture their experiences in poems and anthologies. James notes, in particular, Mckay’s increasing race consciousness expressed through his commitment to writing in native creole language and an early, life-long commitment to women’s rights.
His brother U Theo and the English aristocratic folklorist Walter Jekyll receive honourable mention for their respective roles in encouraging McKay’s writing. Enlightened by these experiences, he went on a voyage of political adventure. His first port of call was the US—and what he discovered shocked and further radicalised him.
It was towards the end of this period that he wrote If We Must Die and after six seemingly “silent years” it was this poem that “first brought him into the limelight in America”. “Indeed”, James argues, “it is for his reaction to the Red Summer that he is most widely remembered”.
The “Red Summer” refers to the infamous events of 1919. Racist mobs went on the rampage launching a series of murderous pogroms that sought to reinforce the subordination of black Americans.
Despite his early success as a writer, Mckay’s experiences in the US had been so humiliating and demoralising that he had ended up working as a waiter on the Pennsylvania Railroad. As a consequence of this, he both witnessed and heard about the Red Summer.
Crucially, however, he also heard about the growing resolve of a generation who had fought in wars and knew how to stand up for themselves. If We Must Die was then a rallying cry to this growing black resistance.
McKay himself suggested that the poem “exploded” out of him as if he was giving birth. He literally had to stop what he was doing, rush to the lavatory and write it out on a scrap of paper. He then read it aloud to a stunned gathering of workmates on board the train.
It was first published in The Liberator, Max Eastman’s socialist magazine in July 1919, and subsequently in a number of other journals including Marcus Garvey’s Negro World.
Despite, or perhaps partly because of his increasing fame, McKay chose to leave the US that autumn. For just over a year he lived in east London and threw himself into political activity. He wrote for Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Dreadnought and dutifully attended Workers Socialist Federation meetings and events.
By this time McKay had been inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, which the Bolshevik party had given leadership to.
In a passage that brings to mind the predicament of today’s Windrush descendants, James argues that McKay’s experiences of racism “in London destroyed any residual notion he might have had about his Britishness”.
As a result of this McKay gravitated towards Pan-Africanism and a desire to visit and embark upon revolutionary activity in his ancestral home.
The Making of a Black Bolshevik gives the lie to Mckay’s declaration that he had “never been a political writer”. James suggests that what sets McKay apart from other Black radicals is the frequency with which he returned to the subject of Bolshevism and the “intellectual rigour with which he discussed it”.
He argues that “addressing the ‘race question’ in relation to socialism was to preoccupy McKay for the rest of his life.” This intellectual curiosity would drive McKay to “wander and wonder” once again and led to some very exciting developments.
He couldn’t resist going to Russia itself and ended up corresponding with revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky among others and speaking at the 4th Congress of the Communist International in 1922.
It was in the decades after this that his influence in the Harlem Renaissance grew and he cemented his position as a seminal black writer and intellectual. These later developments are mentioned only very briefly in Claude McKay—the Making of a Bolshevik. A more detailed examination is to follow in the second instalment of this two part biography. I’m looking forward to its publication.
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But it created its own gravedigger