Monday, December 8, 2014

Claude McKay, Olly Wilson, and the recent murders

The incredible Festus Claudius "Claude" McKay (1889 - 1948) was a Jamaican-American writer and poet. He was active during the Harlem Renaissance, writing books and poetry, non-fiction and fiction. He was also a communist sympathizer, who later retracted his support, despite a favorable months-long stay in the communist Soviet Union. One of his favorite genres to employ was the Sonnet, and arguably his most famous Sonnet is the magnificent "If We Must Die":

If we must die, let it not be 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 death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! 

This poem was published during the "Red Summer" of 1919, a time of intense, racially-motivated violence, mostly against Black Americans.

Fast-forward to 1991: the equally breath-taking, jaw-dropping Olly Wilson composes a large-scale work for choir, vocal soloists, and orchestra called "Of Visions and Truth". The last movement of this work incorporates the McKay Sonnet exquisitely. Olly Wilson himself was born in 1937, and has lived through the intense racial struggle of the 60s, and is now currently witnessing the delicate and explosive situation that is occurring at this very moment in the United States. You can listen to his powerful work here:

23 years later, and the situation is bubbling again. Sentiments held by those who are racist towards Black Americans that should have been corrected before the turn of the 1900s are arising yet again, just as powerful and just as nonsensical as ever. The innocent victims - Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Darrien Hunt, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others - have been used to be "killed like hogs". Yet, those who know and have intimated the struggle also know that these beautiful, innocent Black Americans are human, and their deaths are NOT in vain.

Once again, McKay - in 1919 - ended his Sonnet with this powerful couplet:

Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! 

There are different ways to fight. McKay fought with his pen. Olly Wilson fights with his compositions. Castle of our Skins is also fighting, by celebrating Black artistry through music. Our voice, our work to celebrate the voice of beautiful Black artists, our concerts, our education work, our attempt to plant the seeds of social change and cultural curiosity and awareness - this is our fight.

Thank you.


  1. Poignant and deeply felt. Thank you for connecting the dots. We are living in Historic Times,,, and Times in which History repeats itself

    1. You are so correct. We must learn from history. Scream that at the top of our lungs!