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"If We Must Die" by Claude McKay
Transcript of "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."
began in Jamaica, West Indies and had came to America to study in the Tuskegee Institute, as he was inspired by Booker T. Washington
His poem, "If We Must Die", was written during the period of racial violence against blacks, known as the Red Summer of 1919, becoming an anthem of resistance for his race and the working class.
" 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 honor us though dead! "
! we must meet the
And for their
What though before
lies the open grave?
McKay focuses on the idea of unity, with his repetitive use of "us". Not once in the poem has McKay included "I" or "me". The repetitive use of "us" emphasizes the deflection of loneliness or isolation. One of the most biggest fears in life is to face death alone, but with the constant use of "us", the fear is ultimately gone.
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
The first line of the sonnet sets the speaker and the group he is with, the "we", off in a troubling situation. They have accepted that they
die but refuse to have death compared to that of a hog going to be slaughtered. While the
comparing "we" to hogs makes them seem very weak and defenseless against the "mad and hungry dogs" that are their enemy, the fact that the speaker is refusing to die this way gives them a sense of power.
McKay believes that his people should die with honor, because despite negative views on their culture they are a strong people. In the end they are strong and are proud of their heritage. They assume that because of this it will be honored by these "monsters". Through
McKay continues to give the white man negative connotations by referring to him as a " monster". This comparison allows any reader to assume that the white man is evil and inflicts fear in the speaker.
After the struggles of life, death should be achieved gallantly through honor, unity, and courage.
In the first line of the third quatrain,
readers are greeted with exclamatory sentences
The exclamatory sentences allow the poem to harbor strong emotions, and in this case, it is the kindred emotion of love that the speaker declares loudly and bravely. Exclaiming the first line also exclaims the unity and bond the speaker has with his listeners as they face their powerful foe as if they face death with an expressive pride.
The words McKay uses, such as "outnumbered" and "thousand" brings forth the feeling of intimidation or empowerment as they are placed against "one"; however, the words, "Kinsmen" and "common" deflects the arousing fear of being outnumbered, and once more invokes assurance that the listeners are not alone as they are united by a common goal, and they are also powerful as "one".
The enemy in the sonnet is labeled as a pack; this can be seen again when looking back to the first quatrain when the are referred to as "dogs". This comparison gives them a less humane image, most likely for the injustices they have inflicted on the speaker and his companions.
The couplet serves as the last words of encouragement the speaker has for his companions. His final request of them is to fight to earn their honor and be seen as courageous in a battle they have no chance of winning. Even though they will die, they will be remembered for having continued on in their struggle and acted "like men".
What is the significance of comparing the speaker and his companions to hogs?
Do you think calling the enemy the "monster" is an accurate representation of who they are and what they did?
Who is the enemy that McKay is speaking about?
Do you believe they will be honored for their sacrifice?