Letters to the Editor

There's no evidence Churchill quoted McKay

Tuesday, September 25, 2012    

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Dear Editor,

Your editorial in the Sunday Observer of September 23 incorrectly asserts that Winston Churchill quoted Jamaican Claude McKay in the poem, 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! "

While Churchill shared the great Jamaican's sentiments toward tyranny, he did not quote Claude McKay in any known reference.

The story was refuted by Professor David Freeman, of California State University Fullerton. He wrote the following abstract of Jenkins' article in our journal Finest Hour 125, Winter 2004-05, 33:

"Claude McKay first published his sonnet If We Must Die in the July 1919 issue of The Liberator, a New York magazine edited by Max Eastman. McKay was inspired to pen the verse in reaction to the race riots that took place in the United States during the 1919 'red scare'. McKay had been born in Jamaica but emigrated to the US in 1912 and become active in radical politics. He later travelled to the Soviet Union, Britain, France and Africa, remaining outside the US for almost the entirety of the Harlem Renaissance.

"After World War II the black poets Melvin B Tolson and Kamau Brathwhite, and author Arna Bontemps (The Negro Renaissance), alleged that Churchill had quoted all or part of McKay's poem to the British Parliament in 1940 and the US Congress in 1941. This urban legend focused on the supposed irony of a famous white leader citing a black poet.

"In fact, there is no evidence that Churchill cited the poem in any speech. No reference can be found in Hansard (Parliamentary Debates) or the Congressional Record. Nor could the quote be verified by the Churchill Archives Centre or The Churchill Centre.

"The confusion stems perhaps from the fact that the poem sounds like something Churchill might have said. It is even possible that he was familiar with the words, since in 1919 McKay left the US for London, where he worked for Sylvia Pankhurst's radical newspaper, The Worker's Dreadnought, and Churchill was well known for reading papers across the political spectrum.

"Perhaps the more egregious appropriation of McKay was carried out not by Churchill, but by those who seek to restrict the poet to a black studies paradigm that distorts the emphatically international contours of a remarkable career."

Richard M Langworth

Editor, Finest Hour

rlangworth@winstonchurchill.org

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