Please explain the literary device in, "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay.

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Claude McKay, though a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, was not African American, but Jamaican, and he was horrified by the levels of racism he encountered upon his arrival in the US at the age of 23. Segregation in particular struck him as bizarre and dehumanizing, and this drove him to write a number of rallying poems aimed at black Americans, urging them to fight against what he saw as animalistic treatment of their society. This poem, which depicts blacks as "hunted and penned in some inglorious spot," highlights McKay's particular horror of segregation, which "penned" the blacks as if they were, to the aggressors, "hogs."

Note the orientation of the extended metaphor: it is only in the eyes of "the monster," aka white society, that the constrained blacks are "like hogs." The poem uses fairly aureate and traditional diction ("accursed," repetition of "O," "making their mock," "kinsmen") to emphasize how incorrect this assumption is: though the whites may behave like "mad and hungry dogs," it is only because of their madness that they cannot see how "precious" is the blood of those they oppress.

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There are several literary devices in the poem, “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay.  The first and most powerful is the simile he uses in the very first line of the poem.  McKay pleads to his black readers to not give up and become imprisoned like hogs hunted by a pack of mad dogs.  He says that if we are going to die, let it be for a cause and not like an animal that didn’t defy or fight back against the monsters that hurt and kill them. Here McKay is comparing whites to monsters (a metaphor) that have outnumbered the blacks causing years of brutality and death.  He further develops the idea of whites being animalistic like dogs when he calls them a “murderous, cowardly pack” connecting this metaphor to the original hungry dogs circling and entrapping the pig. 

McKay’s powerful message is that you must fight back against those who oppress you.  In this context, he is talking about fighting against those who lack the humanity to treat others fairly.  McKay makes the point that even “if we must die”, at least die fighting back. 

It’s important to note that this poem is written in sonnet form with 14 lines, a very formal style of writing.  This formal style suggests that McKay was not only writing to his fellow black Americans to fight back, but that he was perhaps sending a message to whites that the time of submission is over.

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