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  • Writer's pictureBarrington Edwards

If we too must breathe

Last Breath / If We Too Must Die

If We Must Die

“If we must die, let it be not 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, 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 deathblow!

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!”

“If We Must Die”, a poem by Claude McKay, written in 1919, rings in my mind as a mantra. It was written in response to the racial massacres of the Red Summer that swept across America. This poem resonates within my thoughts not simply because we are in another apex of racial unrest and uprising but because of McKay’s aggressive and

oppositional stance. In his succinct, charged verse he states plainly his position and his demand of his people to resist this attempted culling at all costs. There is no cry for peace or reconciliation. He does not quibble about who may or may not be an ally. He does not deny the overwhelming odds and misrepresent the cost. He simply says to fight back and make them remember you.

This is my position on racial conflict. I know. I sit in my privilege in passive aggressive Massachusetts where racism is nuanced and plays the long game mist days. I know I am in the system and just as tied to the layered, knitted mess of systemic racism. Still, this is my position. I carry myself a certain way and wear my male privilege as a permitted and barely concealed firearm. I walk around like, “I wish you would...”. It keeps habitual line-steppers on their side of the proverbial sidewalk. I’ve given up putting myself in situations where I’ll invariably be cast as the magical negro. Most casual racists are easy to disarm and put on their backs. Still, who has time for that mess?

Claude McKay like Marcus Garvey, Malik El Haj Shabbaz, and thousands of Afro-Caribbean and African Americans that followed inspire me to fight; metaphorically, strategically, intellectually and yes physically when need be.

In our home growing up we learned as most poor and working class kids do that sometimes people need to get their ass whooped in order to learn. Sad but true. If you disagree you might be who I’m talking about. Or maybe you just never got your ass beat while trying to be peaceful. Self preservation is a biological imperative. Asking me to submit to violence is some colonizer bullshit.

What follows is a string of thoughts and angry imagery purposely conflating the now iconic pleas for breath with the often voiced lies of imminent danger from white killers and assailants. It recalls the productive fiction “The Effigy Beast Project” I did in 2015.


I am not a man

I’m a mythical beast

Nightmare in the flesh

and walking the streets

No blood

no soul

just fire and pain

Just a single thought

instead of a brain

Ok, Let me be

just as wild as you claim

Let me Tear the ideology

out of your frame

Let me take you to oblivion

feeling the cold

Feel the flames from my lips

and do as your told

Let your children and theirs

know the truth of your hypocrisy

Let them witness

as we burn you in effigy

If we have to die

let our corpses have company

If we are not human

we got beef for eternity

With my last breath

I’m not crying for your mercy

I’m calling for the whole horde

to erase your whole legacy

Brick by brick

and everything flammable

Take it all apart

and burn the world of man


Ashes cover everything

Sorrow tinges everything

The crows eat everything

The beasts inherit everything

Until the memory

of the myth of me

erases all the mystery

Rewrites your history

Until your children

shiver when they picture me

Respect my name

and never misremember me.

Hear my last breath

in the whisper of the trees

Twitch when they hear a cough,

Feel it when they catch a breeze.

If this is my last breath

Let it be a howling horror

Let it echo and ring in your ears

for all tomorrows

This is the truth you created

by your own hand

Crafting a mythical creature

from a simple man

These are the beasts that come home to roost

The strange trees ripe fruit

The visible work of invisible men

The congealed hate you crafted

with insistent lies

until they became truth

And spit venom in your blind eyes

The magic you played with

like fireworks and alchemy

Irresponsible mystic

with technological savagery

If we too must die

And these are our last breaths

Let us be the myths you claim we are

And make a glorious thing of death.


I miss the hyperbole of early 90’s rap music. Toxic as it was, I was an adolescent ( kinda) and a hot toxic mess in many ways myself. I tried to be good and conscientious most of the time but I/ we did a lot of reckless things. We had a lot of confusion, pressures and insecurities. We often let it out in rhyme form or on walls.

Fast forward to the 2000s and I’m teaching at an art school. We all taught writing to cover the deficits of teacher shortage. My friend and colleague Raul Garcia prepped a lesson for us to teach on poetry. It had Claude McKay’s poem juxtaposed with Biggie Smalls’ song, “Ready to Die”. That was one of the most bad ass teaching decisions I have ever seen. Perfect. Not a perfect one to one analogy, but an intro into discourse that served its purpose perfectly. Vexing and loaded with potentially opposing views. Raul’s my guy.

I wonder how and when our current conversations around race and identity will take the turn that McKay’s poem took. His poem inspired senator Henry Cabot Lodge to read it on the floor of the House. Winston Churchill is rumored to have read it to rally his troops or before the U.S. Congress but it is unsubstantiated.

It may feel like a step too far today for some but for others imagining the next logical steps from the vantage point of history and from our own personal traumas we may need to use this battle cry or Biggie’s or Chuck D’s. I imagine a sector of the youth who are at the intersection of activism and chaos may plant their feet firmly and knuckle up, body language saying “Bring it.”

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