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If We Must Die Commonlit Answers

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  • 8th Grade

Source: If We Must Die by Claude McKay

Text-Dependent Answers

QuestionAnswer
Which statement best describes the main theme of the poem?Dignity is worth fighting for, even at the assurance of death.
What is this poem mostly about?how men should fight back courageously to die honorably
What is the purpose of the alliteration in line 4?It repeats a letter sound to highlight the insults being made.
What is the meaning of lines 7-8?that dying honorably forces even the enemy to pay their respects
PART A: In line 8, “constrained” means about the same as –forced.
PART B: Which phrase from the poem provides the best clue to the meaning of “constrained”?“In vain; then even the monsters we defy” (Line 7)
PART A: In lines 13-14, the diction portrays the enemy as which of the following?weak
PART B: Which of the following words from lines 13-14 helped you answer Part A?“cowardly”
PART A: The tone of this poem can be described as –inspirational
PART B: Which TWO details from the poem best support the answer to Part A?“let us nobly die” (Line 5)
“let us show us brave” (Line 10)

Discussion Answers

According to the speaker, how should a person face death? Explain your answer in detail.

According to the speaker in Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die,” a person should face death with dignity, bravery, and nobility. This stance is articulated through the poem’s call for a collective, honorable response to an unavoidable confrontation with the enemy, even in the face of certain death.

McKay emphasizes that if death is inevitable, it should not be passive or in a manner that diminishes one’s humanity (“let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot”), but rather as a conscious, valorous act that challenges oppression and injustice.

The poem advocates for facing death in a way that ensures one’s struggle and sacrifice are not in vain, but instead leave a legacy that even adversaries must respect (“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!”).

By urging his kinsmen to meet the common foe and fight back courageously (“Though far outnumbered let us show us brave”), McKay underscores the importance of resisting subjugation and asserting one’s worth through action.

The call to “nobly die” suggests that the act of defiance is a victory, transforming an otherwise desperate situation into an assertion of agency and moral strength. It’s a declaration that they will not be diminished or forgotten, even in death, but will face their end as men, united and resolute (“Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, / Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”).

In summary, McKay’s poem conveys that facing death should be an act of defiance against those who seek to oppress, a final stand that asserts one’s dignity and humanity. It’s a powerful message of resistance that transcends the moment of death, ensuring that the spirit of the struggle is honored and remembered.


Based on your own experience, how do people face death? Cite evidence from your own life, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.

The ways in which people face death are diverse and deeply personal, shaped by a myriad of factors including cultural background, personal beliefs, experiences, and the circumstances surrounding the death itself.

From my observations and the myriad of depictions in literature, art, and historical accounts, it’s evident that some face death with acceptance and peace, others with fear and resistance, and yet others with bravery and dignity.

In personal experiences, I’ve witnessed individuals facing death with a profound sense of peace and acceptance, particularly when they’ve had the chance to reflect on their lives and find closure with loved ones. This acceptance often comes from a place of faith or spiritual belief, a conviction that death is not an end but a transition to another state of being.

This sentiment echoes the serene acceptance found in literary works such as Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” where the protagonist, after a long struggle with illness and existential despair, finds peace in accepting his mortality.

Conversely, literature and history are replete with examples of individuals facing death with defiance and courage, much like the sentiment expressed in McKay’s “If We Must Die.” Historical figures such as Joan of Arc, who faced her execution with remarkable bravery, or the Spartans at Thermopylae, immortalized in both historical accounts and works like Frank Miller’s graphic novel “300,” exemplify the valor in facing death.

These stories resonate with the idea that there is honor in facing death on one’s own terms, fighting for one’s beliefs or for a greater cause.

Art also reflects the myriad ways humans confront death. Edvard Munch’s painting “The Death Bed” evokes the pain and solemnity of death’s inevitability, capturing the emotional tumult surrounding the end of life. In contrast, cultural practices around the world, such as Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, present death as a moment of mourning and celebration of the deceased’s life, reflecting a communal acceptance and a different kind of bravery in facing the reality of death.

In my own life, the passing of a family member brought a mix of these emotions: the pain of loss, the search for acceptance, and the reflection on the life they lived. The mourning process was a journey through joyful and sad memories, and a reminder of the importance of living a life that, when faced with its end, can be looked back on with peace and a sense of fulfillment.

In sum, the ways people face death are as varied as life itself, influenced by a complex interplay of personal, cultural, and existential factors. Literature, art, and history offer us windows into these diverse experiences, reminding us of the commonality of death in the human experience and the multitude of ways we confront it.


Consider the time period during which McKay wrote “If We Must Die.” How might the social conditions of the era and McKay’s experience as a Black writer in Harlem have informed his views on death and bravery?

Claude McKay wrote “If We Must Die” during a tumultuous period in American history, particularly in the summer of 1919, known as the Red Summer. This era was marked by extreme racial violence, with numerous race riots, lynchings, and acts of aggression against African Americans occurring across the United States.

McKay, as a Black writer and a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, lived through and was deeply affected by these social conditions. His experiences as a Black man in early 20th century America, witnessing first-hand the racial injustices and violence, significantly informed his views on death and bravery as expressed in the poem.

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural revival where African American artists, writers, and musicians sought to redefine the Black identity, celebrating African American culture and pushing back against the pervasive racism and segregation of the era.

Within this context, McKay used his work to fight against racial injustice and to articulate the resistance and defiance many African Americans felt.

“If We Must Die” transcends its immediate historical context to address a universal theme of dignity in resistance against oppression. However, the poem’s urgency and emotional depth are undoubtedly rooted in the specific racial conflicts of McKay’s time.

McKay’s perspective on death and bravery, as showcased in the poem, reflects a refusal to be subdued by fear or to accept victimhood quietly. Instead, he advocates for a dignified resistance, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

This stance was a powerful and rallying message to African Americans facing the horrors of racial violence, suggesting that there was honor in standing up against their oppressors, and that such resistance would force even their enemies to acknowledge their humanity and bravery.

Moreover, the poem’s emphasis on collective action (“O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!”) speaks to McKay’s understanding of the importance of unity and solidarity in the struggle for civil rights and social justice.

In a time when African Americans were systematically dehumanized and subjected to brutal violence, McKay’s call to face death with dignity was not only a personal statement but a collective call to action, urging his community to stand together and fight for their rights and respect.

In summary, the social conditions of the era and McKay’s experiences as a Black writer in Harlem deeply informed his views on death and bravery, imbuing “If We Must Die” with a sense of urgency, defiance, and a call for dignity in the face of systemic oppression and violence.

The poem stands as a testament to the resilience and solidarity of the African American community during one of the darkest periods of racial strife in American history.


In the context of this poem, what does it mean to be brave? Cite evidence from this text, your own experience, and other literature, art, or history in your answer.

In the context of Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” to be brave means to face inevitable death with dignity and defiance, rather than fear or submission.

The poem articulates a vision of bravery that is not just about the physical act of fighting against oppressors but also about the moral courage to stand up for one’s dignity and values, even in the face of certain defeat. This bravery is rooted in the choice to resist being dehumanized and to fight back, ensuring that one’s life and death have meaning.

From the text, evidence of this form of bravery is found in lines such as, “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!”

These lines underscore the poem’s central message that there is honor in choosing how one faces death, fighting back against those who would demean or destroy them, and ensuring that such a stand forces even enemies to acknowledge their humanity and courage.

Drawing from my own experience and observation, bravery often manifests in the quiet determination of individuals facing terminal illness with grace, or in the actions of those who stand up for their beliefs despite personal risk. This resonates with McKay’s depiction of bravery as a profound internal strength that empowers individuals to confront their fate on their own terms.

In literature, similar themes of bravery are explored in works like Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” where characters grapple with the inevitability of death and the choices they make in the face of it, embodying bravery not only as a physical act but as an existential one.

Historically, figures such as Harriet Tubman exemplify bravery through their actions and decisions. Tubman’s repeated risks to rescue others from slavery, facing death or recapture each time, showcase a bravery that is both physical and moral, driven by a commitment to freedom and justice.

In art, the concept of bravery is often depicted through powerful visual narratives that evoke the human spirit’s resilience. Picasso’s “Guernica,” for example, uses the horror of war to depict the bravery of individuals confronting the devastation of their world, highlighting the indomitable spirit of those who resist oppression.

Thus, in the context of “If We Must Die” and beyond, to be brave is to face the worst of what life offers with a spirit of resistance and dignity. It is about upholding one’s values and humanity, even at the greatest cost.

This form of bravery transcends physical courage, touching on the essence of being human and standing for something greater than oneself.

Other Commonlit Answers

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