If We Must Die Analysis

Can I please have a line-by-line analysis of the poem "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay?

i am especially having trouble with the meaning of the line "what though before us lies the open grave?"

Expert Answers
jmj616 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Claude McKay (September 15, 1889-May 22, 1948) was a Jamaican-American author who advocated black self-determination; that is, he believed that African-Americans should rely on themselves to become independent and free.

McKay's poem "If We Must Die" provides a good glimpse of his beliefs. Throughout the poem, McKay states repeatedly that blacks must be willing to die for their rights.  This is in contrast to some African-American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington, who believed that good hearted white people would help the black people and that the blacks should accept their help.

McKay's more militant approach is seen in the the phrases "If we must die,"  "let us nobly die," "honor us though dead," and "Pressed to the wall, dying."

The poet emphasizes, however, that the deaths of his people must be noble, "not like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot." The poet believes that if his people die through "fighting back," then their blood will not have been "shed in vain."  Instead, the evil "monsters" who persecuted them will have to "honor us though dead."

Near the end of the poem, the poet writes:

What though before lies the open grave?

You are correct that this is a difficult line to interpret.  I would paraphrase it as follows:  What? You want us to fight? Even though we will surely fall into the open grave that lies before us?

The poet answers this question:

Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!