Red Summer: Text and meaning in Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” (part 1 of 4)

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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Red Summer: Text and meaning in Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” (part 1 of 4) – National African-American Art |


George Zimmerman Verdict Counters Notion of Post-Racial America

Protesters rally against Zimmerman verdict Reuters Photo

Protesters weigh in Los Angeles weigh in on Zimmerman “not guilty” verdict. (Reuters photo by 
Jason Redmond)

Many eyes blinked dumbly, like those of someone realizing they have just been stabbed, and people’s heads shook in slow disbelief when the announcement came Saturday night, July 13, 2013, that George Zimmerman, the man who admittedly killed  Trayvon Martin, had been found “not guilty” of murder.

It remains a difficult conclusion to process––and likely shall remain so for years to come––because certain definitive facts of the case were never disputed. And those, namely actions initiated by Mr. Zimmerman, are what led to the 17-year-old Martin’s death.

Once the presiding judge ruled to allow manslaughter­­­­­­­­­­­­­­ as an optional verdict in place of second degree murder, it seemed almost a given that manslaughter was the very least on which the jury would decide.

Appearing on television Journalist Bob Schieffer’s Face the Nation program July 14, author Michael Eric Dyson and NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous both noted that despite attempts to minimize racial aspects of the case, race was clearly a factor. No one could really dispute that Zimmerman had apparently come armed, loaded, and prepared for the purpose of shooting something or someone. They could not dispute that against instructions not to do so, he had left a vehicle where he was perfectly safe and created a situation that quickly turned deadly. Although the term “racial profiling” was banned from use in the courtroom, no one could seriously dispute that Zimmerman’s sole reason for approaching the teenager was because he was black and male.

Justice and Fear

Television analysts of the case have said the jury’s decision likely hinged on the assessment that Zimmerman feared for his life at the moment he pulled the trigger and that specific moment of fear legally justified his use of lethal force. Why did no one think it likely that Trayvon Martin had started to fear for his life the moment Zimmerman started stalking him without reason?

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