“If We Must Die” has a
lot of background history. In the 1880s slavery had just ended so the racism in
the south was prevalent; therefore, the north was a better place to be. The northern
Manhattan area seemed like a good place for the blacks. Originally Manhattan was
known for the high class white neighborhoods, but with reckless
overdevelopment, most of the city turned into abandoned buildings. After World
War II, many of the African Americans and war veterans either moved up North or
returned to their homes in Harlem, New York (History.com Staff 2). Racism was
already a big concern at the time, but on top of that, the city got over
populated which caused employment problems. Tensions rose, and it led to “…the
racial discrimination against Blacks in Harlem in particular and American
society in general” (Elaiyarasi et al. 236).
Many racist white people who were sick and tired of the overpopulated black
middle class in the north, got together and planned to attack those who
participated in the African Blood Brotherhood Movement. Whites took action once
a Black Pride movement was started, and caused a raging fire of violence
towards the blacks known as the Red Summer of 1919. This caused some to die, and
others to flee in fear.

poem uses a couple clever metaphorical terms and imagery to make it crystal
clear who the underdog is in this fight. First, he describes the scenery of the
black people as hogs. McKay states, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs, /
hunted and penned in an inglorious spot” (McKay pg. 963, lines 1-2). He
portrayed the black people as being trapped and helplessness. Next he labeled the
white people as “mad and hungry dogs” mocking them (McKay pg. 963, line 2). McKay
used the term of a dog to represent the white people to show how vicious and
inhumane they were being, as well as their ferocity in hunting the blacks.

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            The speaker advises his allies to stay strong and fight
back, “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!” (McKay pg.
963, lines 6-8), by refusing to go down like cowards by fighting with so much
valor that even their enemy will respect them. The speaker and the allies know
that they will probably die during this fight, but their death and courage will
be the final message. This is a prime example of moral courage. Muehlbauer
states, “Moral courage involves standing up for your values, ethics, and
beliefs, even at the risk of your reputation, emotional anxiety, social
isolation, or employment” (Muehlbauer 39). The black people realized that if
they go down with a fight, they will be one step closer to racial equality in
the future. Therefore, these men vouch to go down fighting with great heart and

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