If We Must Die - (2010)
medium voice and piano
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.
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!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
pages, circa 1' 55"]
text is drawn from the collection of 74 poems, Harlem Shadows, The Poems
of Claude McKay. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922. It
expressed within the context of the Harlem Renaissance growing awareness of
black conditions after the civil war and through the Jim Crow laws which
originated in the Northeastern states of the US. That lynching was an act of
terror in that time goes without question, and McKay reacts to this with a
call to fight back. Only decades later, the uprising by Jews "pressed to the
wall" in the Warsaw ghetto against the Nazis was a similar expression of
I side with McKay as I side with the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, as with the
uprising of the poor against oppression and in direct opposition to the
modern Western toying with words which conflates "war" with "terror," as did
recently-deceased academic Howard Zinn
[ 1 ], one among a chic group which adopted a historically political yet
morally relative argument hardly worthy of classrooms and interviews, but
unworthy of such sentiment as we learn from McKay's urgent, marching words.
"Fighting back" is fighting back, and sometimes it is not only necessary but
wholly moral and life-affirming. One does not end war nor terror with
surrender, unless one wishes to enlist in the ranks of the defeated
alongside those who adopted some self-inflicted inability to fight back
throughout history. Claude McKay's is a uniquely American call to arms born
in fires of the Harlem Renaissance of the early twentieth century New York,
not an urge to surrender.
Nelson Miller, one of the editors of the Poets' Corner, writes, "Although
written in response to the race riots of 1919 in Chicago and other American
cities, it was read 20 years later by Winston Churchill to Parliament at the
height of the Battle of Britain. It could just as easily have come from
Kosovo or East Timor, or been spoken 3,000 years ago by Homer's character
Hector in The Iliad. Times and places change, but human emotion remains
setting is a set of large arches, the vocal line set off against the 6/8 of
the accompaniment in its own, contrarian 3/4 gestures. For this, the vocal
line should be characterized with an overt aggressiveness, a dramaturgy to
portray becoming ready to stand up to the proverbial bully, whether an
individual, lynch mob or oppressive government.
AABA form's middle section is set off against the outer stanzas with lesser
dynamics and a meno mosso as well as textural differences. The
reprise of the first gestures carries McKay's stern urging to fight "like
men." For this, a portion of the poem's opening lines completes the song
lyric with a hard final lunga chord.
The score for
If We Must Die is available as a free PDF download, though any major
commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior
arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this
If We Must Die
[ 1 ]
For more on this particular subject and another poet who clearly saw freedom
as in opposition to government's central authority, please review comments
which accompany my setting of Erich Mühsam's
Gesang der Intellektuellen and
Gesang der jungen Anarchisten.
I find it more than interesting that Claude McKay's forceful call to resist
- "Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the
wall, dying, but fighting back!" -- can be so easily contrasted with the
utter yet horrid inanity of seemingly seminal 20th century voices. One such
example is playwright George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian Socialist by party
affiliation, who essentially called for what McKay might have seen as state
Shaw said, “I don’t want to punish anybody but there are an extraordinary
number of people whom I want to kill. I think it would be a good thing to
make everybody come before a properly appointed board, just as he might come
before the income tax commissioner. And say every five years or seven years
– just put them there and say – Sir, or Madam, will you be kind enough to
justify your existence. If you’re not producing as much as you
consume or perhaps a little more then clearly we can not use the big
organization of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive because
your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.”
For those who wish
to construct an apologia for such a eugenic expression of "socialism," the
original statement is more than individual. It is genocidal, and came from
the architect of Scientific Socialism. "The chief mission of all other races
and peoples, large and small, is to perish in the revolutionary holocaust."
Karl Marx, in Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung NZR January 1849.
such overt and murderous racial prejudice as Marx evidenced, and the
modern-day foolishness of academics like Zinn, one would do well to revisit
the wisdom of Mill, who wrote:
"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the
decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks
nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human
instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and
for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war
to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to
give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their
own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their own free choice--is
often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he
cares about more than he does about his personal safety is a miserable
creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the
existing of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice
have not terminated their ever renewing fight for ascendancy in the
affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to
do battle for the one against the other." In The Contest in America, pp. 208-09,
in John Stuart Mill, Dissertations and Discussions (Boston:
William V. Spencer, 1867).
poem is a direct descendant of Mills' cogent argument, and a
direct challenge to the topsy-turvy, feel-good illogic of the
modern pacifist, for true social justice involves " fighting