Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 717
To begin an analysis of the rhetorical and stylistic choices in "If We Must Die" by Claude McKay, it's important to first gain a brief understanding of its context. It was written in 1919, a time of deep racial tension in America. During what became known as the Red Summer of 1919, there was a drastic increase in racial violence in major cities. Additionally, the Harlem Renaissance was occurring, with black artists taking pride in their identities through their art. Claude McKay, a Jamaican writer with great interest in these different events and movements, wrote "If We Must Die" with all of this in mind. The poem condemns racial violence and empowers black people to fight back against the oppressive systems that surround them.
The rebellious, call-to-action feel of the poem is accomplished by a variety of different poetic techniques. "If We Must Die" is a Shakespearean sonnet, using iambic pentameter and a rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, gg. This sonnet form gives the poem a sense of forward motion, with the final couplet ending the poem on a note of strong completion. Throughout the second half of the poem, McKay makes striking use of exclamation points, which, together with the meter, lend the poem a sense of being incredibly dire and important; this heightens the urgency of the call to action.
Additionally, the Shakespearean sonnet is an art form that is often lauded by white academics and is typically studied alongside an overwhelming white Western canon. For McKay to use this form in a poem about racism shows that black art is just as valuable and relevant as white art and that black writers must be taken as seriously as white writers are. The use of the sonnet in itself can be seen as a form of resistance, mirroring McKay's call to resistance in the poem. White critics are forced to respect his poem because it is an excellently written sonnet: "then even the monsters we defy / Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!" While Shakespearean sonnets are typically known for conveying themes of romantic love, this is clearly not the case in "If We Must Die," making McKay's use of the form that much more surprising and effective.
Another key technique that McKay uses in this poem is extended metaphor. He compares those who do not fight back against "the monsters we defy" to "hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot." Conversely, those perpetrating racial violence are "mad and hungry dogs," "the murderous, cowardly pack." Beginning and ending the poem with these symbols helps McKay to convey the unjust nature of racial violence to his readers. It also creates an adversarial dynamic that further supports the poem's thesis. Additionally, comparing those that do not fight to helpless hogs is demeaning; this imagery, combined with the later exhortation to fight "like men," spurs black Americans into resisting oppression.
McKay frequently uses diction that amplifies a sense of moral responsibility for black Americans to fight for themselves. Words like "nobly," "precious," "honor," and "brave" characterize the fighters, while "mad," "mock," "monsters," "murderous," and "cowardly" describe the oppressors. McKay also uses terms that underscore the long-standing, historical nature of systemic racism. Black Americans are "outnumbered" "kinsmen" who have been dealt a "thousand blows." McKay's use of diction creates a sense of the righteousness of the fight that must take place, making it clear that this battle must, rather than merely should, be fought.
While these are some of the most apparent and effective techniques used in "If We Must Die," McKay uses several...
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more throughout the poem, albeit more subtly. Lines 1 through 2 and 6 through 8 feature enjambment, a technique in which a sentence is allowed to continue from one line to the next without any pause or stop. This adds to the sense of dire movement; the reader must continue onto the next line quickly, just as the fight against racial violence must begin quickly. Additionally, McKay addresses his poem directly to the reader and frequently refers to "we" and "us," a rhetorical choice that lends a sense of community and immediacy.
While "If We Must Die" is a short poem, it is filled with clever poetic techniques that, combined with its historical and literary context, give it an intense feeling of assembly, an urgent call to arms.