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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
One of the central themes of “If We Must Die” relates to the dehumanizing effects of subjugation. The speaker introduces this powerful theme in the sonnet’s opening quatrain, where he describes himself and his compatriots as being “like hogs” who have been “hunted and penned in an inglorious spot” (lines 2–3). To be treated like animals in this way results, the speaker implies, in a sense of diminished agency and powerlessness. It’s for this reason that the speaker refuses such treatment at the hands of his oppressors and insists that he and his kinsmen must fight back against “the common foe” (line 9). Only in meeting violence with violence will the oppressed assert their right to be treated not “like hogs” but “like men” (line 13). Significantly, subjugation doesn’t have a dehumanizing effect on the oppressed only. Indeed, the speaker strongly implies that those who oppress others effectively dehumanize themselves. The speaker makes this point by consistently referring to the oppressors as nonhumans. In the first quatrain he refers to them as “mad and hungry dogs” (line 3), in the second quatrain he calls them “monsters” (line 7), and in the final couplet they are a “cowardly pack” (line 13).
The speaker of “If We Must Die” makes a powerful argument regarding the intrinsic heroism involved in oppressed people resisting their oppressors. This theme emerges most clearly in the second half of the poem, as the speaker turns to address his compatriots with a rousing call to arms (lines 9–14):
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!
. . .
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Twice in these lines the speaker emphasizes the high probability of death, mainly due to the fact of being “far outnumbered.” It is precisely by standing firm against such a “murderous, cowardly pack” that a person earns the right to be called “brave.” In other words, the speaker calls on his compatriots to defy the odds by gathering their courage and fighting back. For indeed, they will achieve the apex of heroism by staying true to the resistance even when “pressed to the wall,” with nowhere to turn and no one to rely on but themselves.
One important aspect of “If We Must Die” is the fact that the speaker never clearly identifies which oppressed group he belongs to or what the precise nature of their oppression is. This vagueness enables many different oppressed groups to see themselves and their situations reflected in the poem. Given the widespread applicability of the poem’s message, it’s worth considering how McKay’s text doesn’t simply emphasize the heroism of resistance. Indeed, the poem actively celebrates the dignity and humanity of any people forced to combat oppression. With this reading in mind, it’s possible to read the as poem broadly championing all revolutionary activity that seeks to improve the lives and livelihoods of subjugated communities. This is arguably the theme that made McKay’s poem such a popular touchstone throughout the twentieth century. After all, that century witnessed widespread revolutionary activity that helped end the British Empire and improve civil liberties for Black people and other people of color in the United States and elsewhere.