Langston Hughes’ “I, Too”
This is a literature paper. I'll correct anything I find out when I get it back from my professor.
Langston Hughes is a poet and author of the Harlem Renaissance that favored a more passive approach to civil rights. He only subtly insulted whites, and often wrote to their tastes. He was very political, but still made his point and his opinion known. In his poem “I, Too,” he changes stanza lengths, line lengths, and words to convey a disapproval of the way African Americans were treated. His portrayal of white Americans is one of ignorance, not of distaste, and he seeks only to open their eyes.
It’s almost comical, the way he portrays disapproval. He decides to take a role of an older sibling, looking on to see their little brothers or sisters acting out of self-imposed ignorance. This doesn’t make it right to act this way, but it (in Hughes’ opinion) doesn’t deserve as harsh of a punishment, but rather a revelation of truth. In lines 16 and 17, he conveys this meaning. He blatantly says that the whites will someday see the beauty in blacks, and they will know what they were doing was wrong. The issue isn’t that whites are evil or bad, but rather than they are blind.
Hughes also conveys his shake-your-head-and-chuckle attitude in the fifth through seventh lines, in which he literally laughs at the whites for sending him to eat in the kitchen. All the while, he eats just as well and he continues to grow stronger. This could be simply showing how the whites are still gracious, and therefore not evil but only blind. It could also be a metaphor on the undercurrent of the ensuing civil rights movement (that began as early as the 1610’s when the first slaves resisted their masters and rebelled). He eats well, he grows strong. Black people have been hidden in the kitchen, but all the while, they’ve been just chuckling and waiting for their chance. They grow strong, sitting, hidden from company. But, as the next line says, “Tomorrow/ I’ll be at the table/ When company comes.” The civil rights movement will gain momentum, and soon it won’t be just an undercurrent; whites will see through their previous ignorance. Hughes then makes the passive threat a bit more proactive. The next lines read that not only will he be eating in the dining room with everyone else, but that no one would even dare tell him to eat in the kitchen tomorrow. He makes this an even stronger aggressive movement when he uses “Then.” This word by itself echoes the solitary word “Tomorrow” that began the stanza. It also emphasizes his strength and certainty, and the ominous quality of the stanza’s progression of antagonism.
The poem could have ended there, with the word “then.” That would’ve made the poem harsher, with a sharper, more antagonistic edge and a more defined aggressive tone. But Hughes adds a stanza and a solitary line. His stanza plays again on the immaturity and ignorance of the racism of the whites. When the word “beautiful” is used to describe himself, or metaphorically the black people, is brings back the image he created in the second line, “I am the darker brother.” Hughes wants to create an image of a beautiful black culture symbolically, if not a beautiful black man physically. The alliteration of “beautiful”, “besides”, and “brother” points to this imagery. Not only does Hughes create this image of beautiful black people and culture, but he also writes that they are so beautiful that someone would be ashamed for not realizing it in the first place when this epiphany does come. He is extremely proud of his culture, so proud that he just knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that if anyone were to see what he saw, they would be ashamed for ever treating the culture or a black person poorly.
Then, there is the last line. At first glance, it perfectly echoes the first line. But a single word is changed. In the beginning, he only sings America. He wants to be a part of America, but he is in the background. Black people want to be a part of America, but they are in the background, at least according to most whites. And the whites typically were in charge in America in the 1920’s, when Langston Hughes wrote this poem (published in 1927). After the words “tomorrow” and “then,” however, the story is changed. Hughes and his people no longer solely “sing America.” They are American. “I, too, am America.” The revelation will come, and not far away, only tomorrow, and they will be part of what everyone thinks of when they think of America.
Langston Hughes played to a white audience. He published much of his poetry and short stories from white publishing houses. Perhaps this is what made a passive, non-angry view of white Americans. But perhaps his message was simpler: I love being black, I love black culture, and if only you could see it, you would love it too. He might be the “darker brother,” but be he is beautiful, so beautiful that to overlook it would be shameful. The poem “I, Too” is a declaration of black beauty, and not just a hope or optimism, but a belief that because of this beauty equality is only a day away.