"Protest Poems."

by Robert  T.  Kerlin

The Negro's deep resentment of his wrongs has found its most artistic expression in the verse of a poet who came to use from Jamaica—Mr. Claude McKay. In another chapter I have given the reader an opportunity to judge his merits. He will be represented here by a sonnet, written, I believe, shortly after the race-riot in the national capital, July, 1919. It has been widely reprinted in the Negro newspapers,

IF WE MUST DIE If we 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—oh, 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! Oh, kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave, And for their thousand blows deal on 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! [source]

Race consciousness has recently attained an extraordinary pitch in the Negro, and there seems to be no prospect of any abatement. The verse-smiths one and all have borne witness to a feeling of great intensity on all subjects pertaining to their race—the discriminations and injustices practised against it, the limitations that would be imposed upon it, the contumelies that would offend it. Ardent appeals are therefore made to race pride and ardent exhortations to race unity. The ancient rôle of the poet whereby he is identified with the prophet is being resumed by the enkindled souls of black men. With their natural gift for music and eloquence, with their increasing culture, with their building up of poetic tradition now in process, with this intensification of race consciousness, almost anything may be expected of the Negro in another generation.


Kerlin, Robert T.. "Protest Poems." Negro Poets and Their Poems (1923). Associated Publishers, Inc.


Copy consulted at Syracuse University Libraries.


This extract is taken from Kerlin's discussion of McKay in the seventh chapter, "The Poetry of Protest."


Harlem Shadows (1922)

Additional Poems by Claude McKay

Contemporary Reviews

Supplementary Texts