“If We Must Die” is characterized by a powerfully defiant tone. This defiance appears most obviously in the speaker’s attitude toward his oppressors, as seen in the poem’s second quatrain (lines 5–8):
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!
Here, the speaker explicitly calls for his compatriots to “defy” those “monsters” who seem bent on shedding their “precious blood.” The best way to enact such defiance, the speaker claims, is to face death fearlessly. But the speaker’s attitude isn’t the only thing that gives the poem its defiant tone. Indeed, McKay’s use of the sonnet form can be understood as an act of defiance. This type of sonnet was popularized in the sixteenth century by no less than William Shakespeare. Considering that McKay was born and raised in the British colony of Jamaica, his adoption of this quintessentially English poetic form can be understood as a political act of defiance. McKay amplifies this defiant tone by using the so-called “heroic verse” of iambic pentameter to denigrate the monstrosity of the oppressors and elevate the humanity of the oppressed.