The Theme of Mortality in We Must Die by Claude Mckay

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1019 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 1019|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021


Table of contents

  1. The Quest for Dignity
  2. Unity in Adversity
  3. Contextualizing Mortality and Resilience
  4. Conclusion

Claude McKay's poetry holds a revered place in the annals of American literature, particularly within the context of the Harlem Renaissance—a flourishing period of artistic and intellectual achievement among African Americans in the early 20th century. Among his notable works, "We Must Die" stands out as a poignant exploration of mortality, dignity, and resilience.

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Set against the backdrop of social upheaval and racial tension, McKay's poem captures the ethos of a generation grappling with existential questions in the face of systemic injustice. Through meticulous craftsmanship and emotive language, McKay invites readers to contemplate the fleeting nature of existence and the enduring power of the human spirit.

The Quest for Dignity

From the opening lines of Claude McKay's "We Must Die," the theme of dignity emerges as a central motif. McKay's poignant comparison of humans to "hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot" serves as a stark reminder of the indignities that individuals may face in life. This imagery evokes a visceral response, highlighting the profound need for respect and recognition in the face of mortality. By invoking the image of being hunted and confined, McKay underscores the importance of dignity as a fundamental aspect of human existence.

Moreover, McKay's plea for a noble death—"If we must die, O let us nobly die"—resonates with a sense of urgency and defiance. This assertion challenges readers to contemplate the manner in which they wish to confront their mortality. McKay emphasizes the desire to be remembered for one's virtues and accomplishments, rather than succumbing to despair and degradation. In doing so, he elevates the concept of dignity to a transcendent ideal, urging individuals to strive for greatness even in the face of adversity.

Furthermore, McKay's exploration of dignity extends beyond individual survival; it encompasses the broader quest for social justice and equality. The imagery of being "pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back" conveys a sense of resilience and determination in the face of systemic oppression. McKay's words serve as a rallying cry for marginalized communities, urging them to assert their humanity and demand recognition and respect.

Unity in Adversity

In "We Must Die," Claude McKay employs metaphor and symbolism to convey the theme of unity in the face of adversity. The invocation of "kinsmen" evokes a sense of solidarity and interconnectedness, emphasizing the shared bonds that unite humanity. This imagery serves to underscore the importance of mutual support and cooperation in confronting common challenges.

Furthermore, McKay's call to face a "common foe" together reflects a collective resilience and determination to overcome obstacles. This metaphorical foe may represent various forms of oppression and injustice, including racism, poverty, and discrimination. McKay's words resonate with a sense of urgency and purpose, urging individuals to set aside their differences and work together towards a common goal.

Moreover, McKay's depiction of resilience—"though far outnumbered let us show us brave, and for their thousand blows deal one deathblow"—exemplifies the indomitable spirit of individuals confronting overwhelming odds. Despite the inevitability of struggle, McKay implores readers to confront adversity with courage and determination, refusing to succumb to despair. This call to action inspires a sense of hope and empowerment, encouraging individuals to persevere in the face of adversity.

Contextualizing Mortality and Resilience

Against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay's "We Must Die" takes on added significance, reflecting the socio-cultural milieu of the era. The poem captures the spirit of resilience and defiance that characterized the African American experience during this tumultuous period. As African Americans grappled with systemic racism and oppression, McKay's words served as a source of inspiration and empowerment, urging individuals to assert their humanity and demand justice.

Moreover, McKay's exploration of mortality speaks to universal truths about the human condition, transcending temporal and cultural boundaries. The imagery of facing the "open grave" serves as a poignant reminder of the inevitability of death. McKay's words prompt readers to contemplate their own mortality and embrace life's fleeting moments with gratitude and purpose.

Furthermore, McKay's nuanced portrayal of resilience underscores the indomitable spirit of individuals confronting adversity. Whether facing systemic oppression or personal hardship, McKay's words serve as a reminder of the power of the human spirit to overcome obstacles and triumph over adversity. In this way, "We Must Die" stands as a timeless testament to the resilience and fortitude of the human spirit, inspiring generations of readers to confront life's challenges with courage and determination.

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In conclusion, Claude McKay's "We Must Die" emerges as a timeless exploration of mortality, dignity, and resilience. Through meticulous craftsmanship and emotive language, McKay invites readers to confront life's existential realities with courage and fortitude, urging them to embrace the fleeting moments of joy and meaning. As we grapple with the inevitability of death, McKay's poem serves as a poignant reminder of the enduring power of the human spirit, inspiring readers to live with purpose and integrity.


  1. Gates, H. L., & McKay, C. (Eds.). (2017). Claude McKay: Complete Poems (Centennial Edition). University of Illinois Press.
  2. Hutchinson, G. (2005). The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White. Harvard University Press.
  3. McKay, C. (1922). “If We Must Die.” The Liberator, 25(10), 248-249.
  4. Rampersad, A. (1990). The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America. Oxford University Press.
  5. Wintz, C. D. (Ed.). (2004). Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. Routledge.
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The Theme Of Mortality In We Must Die By Claude Mckay. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from
“The Theme Of Mortality In We Must Die By Claude Mckay.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
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