Category Archives: Lit

If We Must Die

Probably Claude McKay’s most anthologized poem. He wrote this during Red Summer.

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 doIgs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
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!
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!
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!

McKay was also a novelist. I’ve taught both Home to Harlem and Banjo, something I probably won’t do again any time soon.

Harvests (225)

To some extent, you can judge a book by its cover. The original cover of Red Harvest, first published by Knopf in 1929, exhibits many of the characteristic features of art deco, the dominant design style of the era.

Note the angularity of the lettering. The way the title itself has been squeezed so tightly it forces a break in the word “Harvest.” The bold black on white. The flat, bright patterning of the borders. These are all signifiers of a new cultural phase of modernity. They represent a conscious rejection of the curvilinear font and rich, embellished illustration found in an art nouveau poster like this advertisement for biscuits (what Americans call a cookie):

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Macandal (303/415)

The horse, stumbling, dropped to its knees. There came a howl so piercing and so prolonged that it reached the neighboring plantations, frightening the pigeons. Macandal’s left hand had been caught with the cane by the sudden tug of the rollers, which had dragged in his arm up to the shoulder. An eye of blood began to widen in the pan catching the juice. Grabbing a knife, Tï Noël cut the traces that fastened the horse to the shaft of the mill. Slaves from the tannery rushed over, following the master, as did the meat-smokers and the cacao-bean-dryers. Now Macandal was pulling at his crushed arm, turning the rollers backward. With his right hand he was trying to move an elbow, a wrist that no longer obeyed him. He had a stupefied look, as though he was not taking in what had happened to him. They began to tie a rope tourniquet under his armpit to stop the bleeding. The master called for the whetstone to sharpen the machete to be used in the amputation.

— Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

— Dylan Thomas (1934)