The summer of 2015 marks the 96th anniversary of the publication of Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay’s masterful poem, “If We Must Die.” This essay is presented in commemoration of that literary milestone and in remembrance of the extraordinary Red Summer of 1919 that inspired it.
There were many good reasons to believe America had entered––or at least was about to enter––a golden era of post-racialism following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Among them was the election of the country’s first African-American president itself, an increasingly diverse American population, and a sociopolitical landscape made more democratic (in appearance at least) by the various influences of technological innovation.
Unfortunately, none of those good noble reasons were able to withstand the onslaught of reality as the number of hate groups in the country began to increase almost immediately, even while the Black prison population and Black unemployment rates continued to do the same. In a word, the country was nowhere near “there” yet.
Red Summers of Yesterday and Today
The growing number of cities where protest demonstrations have occurred over the past few years in response to extreme uses of force by policemen against African Americans, and the very oppressive conditions under which many African Americans continue to live, is eerily similar to another riot-filled time in U.S. history. The period which might first come to mind for most people is the 1960s, a decade in which “race riots” flared up every other year in places such as Greensboro, N.C. (1960), Los Angeles (Watts), Calif. (1964), Detroit, Michigan (1967), and Baltimore (1968).
However, the historical moment which possibly resembles the current intense state of racial affairs the most is that of the period leading up to the Red Summer of 1919. As pointed out in Facts on File’s Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance:
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