"If We Must Die" is writer Claude McKay's most famous poem, showing his deft use of the form most associated with his work, the sonnet. McKay composed the poem in response to the outburst of racial violence in the summer of 1919, dubbed "The Red Summer" because of the many urban race riots that took place then. Written while McKay was working as a waiter for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the sonnet's first audience was in fact McKay's fellow black railroad workers, who were deeply moved by the poem's rhetoric. McKay first published the sonnet in the New York socialist magazine The Liberator in 1919, and he would go on to read it before audiences during his visits to Soviet Russia in 1922-23. Destined to become a crucial poem for the Harlem Renaissance, "If We Must Die" was reprinted and featured in black newspapers and magazines across America. It would also ultimately become, as McKay later noted with some regret, "the sole standard of appraising my poetry" among many of his readers.
A brief poem of only 14 lines, "If We Must Die" turns powerfully on its title phrase, repeated at the beginning of both the first and second quatrains. The conditional "if," arguably the poem's most important word, at once acknowledges impending death and gestures towards the horror and the tragedy of the conditions that make that death inevitable. As a powerful protest against racial injustice, the poem has resonated well beyond its original context, leading readers and critics to compare McKay to Marcus Garvey and other crucial figures of black history. However, the poem's stark avoidance of racial terms—indeed, of any sort of concrete description—has also made it an inspiration for countless others experiencing violence and oppression. In a 1939 letter McKay reported that a Jewish friend of his had assumed the poem must be about the European Jews persecuted by Hitler, and McKay told his friend that he was "happy he was moved by the universal appeal." As an appeal to and justification for resistance, and a rousing call to arms for any facing discrimination and death, McKay's poem has ultimately proven as timeless as the sonnet form it so movingly employs.