The “Red Summer” of 1919
When McKay wrote “If We Must Die” in 1919, he was likely responding—at least in part—to race-based violence that took place in many American cities during the summer of that year. Following the end of World War I, as veterans returned home and reintegrated into social and economic life, competition for work quickly led to worsening racial tensions. White servicemen resented the fact that many of their jobs had been filled by Black laborers while they were abroad. This resentment reached a tipping point in the summer of 1919, which saw widespread violence targeted against Black people. The violence of this period, which became known as the “Red Summer,” was related to a longer history of lynching in the United States. Lynching, along with other forms of persecution, had terrorized Black communities since the Reconstruction era that followed the end of the American Civil War. The events of the Red Summer were therefore part of a longer history of violent oppression. Against the backdrop of this widespread violence and its roots in anti-Black racism, McKay, who had lived in the United States since 1912, composed “If We Must Die” about refusing the indignity of oppression.
The Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance refers to a major explosion of Black intellectual and artistic activity that erupted in the 1920s. Though centered on the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, the Renaissance had an international reach that witnessed the flowering of Black intellectual discourse, literature, visual art, music, and fashion. All these forms of cultural and artistic production sought to challenge racism, subvert predominant stereotypes, and develop progressive new politics that advanced Black peoples and promoted integration. At the center of the Harlem Renaissance stood the figure known as the New Negro. The “Old Negro” was thought to remain hampered by the historical trauma of slavery. The “New Negro,” by contrast, possessed a renewed sense of self, purpose, and pride. As someone whose sense of pride leads them to refuse an ignoble death at the hands of their oppressors, the speaker of “If We Must Die” nicely exemplifies the figure of the New Negro. Through early poems like this, Claude McKay played an important role in the genesis of the Harlem Renaissance. During his time as a resident of Harlem through the 1920s, McKay wrote several more works about Black life in the neighborhood, including his popular 1928 novel, Home to Harlem.