After reading Claude McKay's poem "If We Must Die," and the Langston Hughes poem "I, Too, Sing America," what do you believe are their similarities and differences?
If We Must Die by Claude McKay
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—oh, 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! Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow! 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!
I, Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America. I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong. Tomorrow, I'll be at the table When company comes. Nobody'll dare Say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," Then. Besides, They'll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed-- I, too, am America.
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Both poems were written during the Harlem Renaissance, by writers who largly focused on the theme of black identity in America. Both texts deal specifically with the feeling of being "outnumbered" or in the minority, but using that feeling to develop strength. Both narrators are unwilling to accept their places in society. Both also deal with the concept of honor, but in different ways.
Once difference between the two is tone. In Hughes's poem, the narrator's tone is quiet, yet strong. He is keeping his strength a secret for now, he just laughs to himself. He doesn't have to say much, because they will see for themselves, in time, that he has grown into a strong, beautiful man. There is hope hidden in this poem. While the narrator is dealing with racism in the present, he knows that times will change, and that they will feel "ashamed" for the way they have treated him. He knows that America is changing, and that he is a part of it already, "they" just don't know it yet. But they will.
In McKay's poem, the tone is much more aggressive, less passive and less hopeful, yet equal in strength. The focus is on the immediate and the stakes are higher. The narrator is NOT hopeful that the world around him will eventually accept him and his place in society, therefore he is faced with a choice: He can either be defeated, or fight back, even if he is incapable of winning. The powerful final line, "Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!" leaves a lasting impression on the reader. The narrator feels that he has no escape, but he refuses to go down easily.
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