Claude McKay had been living in the United States for seven years when he wrote “If We Must Die.” The year was 1919, and as he himself has indicated, he wrote the poem in response to the brutal anti-Black violence that took place throughout America that summer—what became known as the “Red Summer” of 1919. Even so, the poem’s speaker doesn’t explicitly mention this period of violence. Instead, he speaks much more generally about the importance of resisting oppression as a method for maintaining dignity and honor. Instead of simply allowing themselves to be killed, the speaker calls for his “kinsmen” (line 9) to resist their oppressors and to meet violence with violence. Even if death remains inevitable, the speaker claims that resistance will guarantee their dignity and force their oppressors “to honor us though dead” (line 8). McKay reflects his speaker’s defiant tone in his decision to write the poem as an English sonnet, complete with lines of iambic pentameter and a traditional rhyme scheme. As someone from the British colony of Jamaica, McKay’s adoption of this quintessentially English poetic form can be understood as a political act of defiance—particularly since he uses it to give voice to the oppressed.