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!
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
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
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.”