By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘I, Too’ is a 1924 poem by the American poet Langston Hughes (1901-67), a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance who was nicknamed ‘the Bard of Harlem’. In part a response to Walt Whitman, ‘I, Too’ sees Hughes asserting that he, and other black American voices like his, also ‘sing’ of America and are America, too, even though American society treats black people differently.
You can read ‘I, Too’ here. Below, we offer a summary and analysis of the poem’s language and meaning.
‘I, Too’: summary
Hughes begins ‘I, Too’ by asserting that he, as well as others, sings in praise of America. He the ‘darker brother’: black-skinned, and so treated differently by American society. As a black servant, he is sent to eat in the kitchen whenever the family he works for are entertaining people for dinner, but despite this, he remains happy and strong.
And there is a suggestion of progress, and perhaps defiance: tomorrow, Hughes tells us, when company comes, things will have changed, and nobody will dare dismiss him to the kitchen next time the family are entertaining guests. ‘Tomorrow’ here can be interpreted as ‘in the near future’ or ‘in a brighter tomorrow’, rather than more narrowly and literally as ‘the day after today’.
Hughes states that people will come to see how beautiful he is as a black person, and grow ashamed of their former mistreatment of him and other black Americans, because he, too, is America and as much an American as white people are.
‘I, Too’: analysis
Langston Hughes (1901-67) was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s. Over the course of a varied career he was a novelist, playwright, social activist, and journalist, but it is for his poetry that Hughes is now best-remembered.
He wrote ‘I, Too’ following his experiences trying to gain passage aboard a ship from Italy back to the United States in 1924; he was repeatedly passed over for a place on board numerous ships while white sailors were welcomed aboard. Racial inequality, then, is obviously a key theme in Hughes’ poem.
‘I, Too’ is often categorised as a protest poem. But it is also a poem of celebration, and one of the things which a critic or student of Hughes’ poem needs to consider is how these two sides to the poem are kept in careful balance – a care and a balance belied by the conversation, free-verse style of the poem.
In just eighteen lines, Hughes responds to a famous poem by Walt Whitman (1819-92), ‘I Hear America Singing’. Whitman’s poem, originally published in his reissued and expanded Leaves of Grass in 1860, begins:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work …
Whitman’s celebration of the variety of American life is at once grounded in the individual and the sense of collective community: as Whitman famous writes elsewhere, ‘I am large: I contain multitudes’. Communities are made up of individual people, and each individual is forged or shaped by their community.
Langston Hughes was greatly inspired and influenced by Whitman’s vision of America as a community of individuals. If Whitman’s poetry represents a declaration of literary independence – choosing to break out of the iambic pentameter verse line associated with the old land of England and into new, looser, freer territory, namely free verse – then Hughes’ response to Whitman’s ‘I Hear America Singing’ is both a development of, and subtle critique of, Whitman’s vision, which had not centred the experience of black Americans in the way that Hughes’ writing would.
And if Whitman’s poem is an unadulterated paean to the multiplicity of voices found in America, it is nevertheless a poem written in antebellum times when slavery was still legal in the United States, and black people were regarded as worse than second-class citizens.
Whitman can only exult in the generous diversity of (white) voices by leaving out the stifled voices of African slaves; Hughes, good-naturedly taking up the mantle from Whitman, seeks to broaden out such a ‘song’ to America by adding his own voice to the throng.
Despite the quiet protest over such side-lining of his and other voices, Hughes’s tone in ‘I, Too’, as in much of his poetry, is one of joy and celebration, as in Whitman’s verse. Hughes’s use of free verse is strikingly different from Whitman’s however: whereas ‘I Hear America Singing’ showcases the long, exuberant verse line which Whitman made his own, under the influence of the biblical Psalms, ‘I, Too’ shares more with contemporary improvised jazz rhythms and the vers libre of French poetry than it does with Whitman’s overflowing syllables.
And in terms of form, Langston Hughes’s song in celebration of his home country reveals careful artifice behind the supposedly ‘free’ exterior: despite eschewing a formal rhyme scheme, regular metre, or stanza structure, the near-repetition of the poem’s opening line as the closing line, with ‘sing’ altered to ‘am’ in the final line, brings the poem full-circle, like a song whose refrain is being repeated for emphasis.
Such a movement also balances the shifts in the poem between highlighting injustice (black Americans are treated as second-class citizens, even more than half a century after the end of slavery, and are forced to eat in the kitchen, separate from the white hosts and guests) and celebrating growth and prosperity (the emphasis on eating well and growing strong).
These two modes – quiet defiance and hopeful celebration – remain in balance as the poem enacts a number of repetitions, with lines ending ‘kitchen’ and ‘company comes’ recurring in both the second and third stanzas (the latter a neat piece of alliteration, or more than alliteration, with the repeated ‘com’ sound reinforcing the idea of coming-together or communion) and underscoring the shift between segregation and acceptance.