New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism between the Wars

By William J. Maxwell | Go to book overview

2 • Home to Moscow: Claude McKay’s
The Negroes in America and the
Race of Marxist Theory

Young comrades,

                        keep eyes on Moscow,

                                                    train ears

to Russian consonants, vowels.

Why,

      were I a black

                        whom old age hoars,

still,

          eager and uncomplaining,
I’d sit

            and learn Russian

                                    if only because

it

    was spoken

                    by Lenin.

—Vladimir Mayakovsky, “To Our Young Generation” (1927)

Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” the poem most often judged to be the inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance, was first printed above an article on Bolshevism and religion in the July 1919 Liberator. In the eyes of its author, however, the sonnet was unveiled before a group Andy Razaf might have styled as the renaissance’s chefs: the black employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad dining car where McKay waited tables. “It was the only poem I ever read to the members of my crew,” McKay claimed, and “they were all agitated” (A Long Way 31). The excited response of McKay’s coworkers was to be echoed by the dozens of African-American journals that reprinted the poem repeatedly into the 1920s. The Crusader hailed “If We Must Die” with speed: its September 1919 issue featured the sonnet a few pages ahead of a reprise of Razaf’s martial ballad “Don’t Tread on Me.”

-63-

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