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In "I, Too," Langston Hughes is obviously in conversation with the earlier poem, Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." Both poems explore the idea of American identity -- who and what is an American? What characterizes the people of this nation? The two poets, however, reach somewhat different conclusions in response to these questions.
Whitman is known as the quintessential American poet, in part due to poems like this one. Whitman's "Song of Myself" positions the individual at the center, and the individual (at least Whitman as the individual) is a multi-faceted, inclusive being. In "I Hear America Singing," Whitman refers to "the varied carols" of different workers ("mechanics" ), "the carpenter" , " the mason" , "the boatman" and "the deckman" , "the shoemaker" and "the hatter" , "the wood-cutter" and "the ploughboy" ). Whitman includes workers of both genders, listing "the mother," "the young wife at work," and "the girl sewing or washing" in line 8. These Americans at work are "singing what belongs to him or her and to none else," according to line 9. Whitman identifies each person with his or her task; the work is what defines the person here. He then briefly mentions "the party of young fellows" at night, presumably after work, who also sing "strong melodious songs" (11-12). Whitman's various examples seem to be meant to cover many professions and both genders. The lines of Whitman's poem are long and full of descriptive detail. There is no rhyme scheme or attempt to break lines into stanzas. The poem flows freely, a stylistic reflection of Whitman's central theme -- the freedom of the individual.
Hughes's "I,Too," however, seeks to point out at least one blind spot in Whitman's ideal vision of America. Hughes begins by saying, "I, too, sing America," which is an immediately recognizable allusion to Whitman's poem and also implies that Whitman did not speak for Hughes. As Hughes's poem progresses, the speaker describes himself as "the darker brother" (2). Here, in claiming a voice for "the darker brother," Hughes suggests that this segment of the American population was not covered in Whitman's vision. Hughes's speaker does not believe he was spoken for in "I Hear America Singing" and must now speak up for himself. The speaker refers to being sent "to eat in the kitchen," a form of racial segregation. Despite the shame implicit in such an order, Hughes's speaker sees his time in the kitchen as a time to prepare ("I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong" [5-7]) for "Tomorrow" (8). Hughes's speaker recognizes his current oppression but intends to overcome it in the future. He envisions not the present, as Whitman does, but a better future, one in which "Nobody'll dare/ Say to me, 'Eat in the kitchen,'" (11-13). The speaker further argues that it is not he who will be ashamed but those who oppressed him, once they "see how beautiful [he is]" (16). In the final line of the poem, Hughes revises slightly the phrasing of the opening line: "I, too, am America" (18). This simple change of verb, from "sing" to "am" expands Hughes's vision to a more inclusive one, one that more strongly asserts his identity as an American. Stylistically, Hughes's poem is strikingly different than Whitman's. The lines are short and are read in a staccato style. There are more stops and starts, and the rhythm is more abrupt (not free-flowing like Whitman's). Hughes's speaker's vision is, perhaps, as ambitious as Whitman's, but he is more realistic and he makes his point with fewer words. This choice reflects the content of the poem in the sense that the speaker, in the present at least, is not permitted the freedom to speak, to sing, or to be in the way that Whitman's speaker is.
While both poems meditate on the American identity, different historical contexts and different facets of identity (namely, race) result in different ideas about who is an American. Whitman's vision is broad, and Hughes's is more specific; Hughes's poem suggests, though, that even in its broadness, Whitman's vision is limited.
The most striking difference in these two poems is the contrast between Whitman's expansive sense of inclusiveness and Hughes' sense of isolation and exclusion.
While Hughes' poem depicts a situation where near-future will allow for greater inclusion when "Nobody’ll dare/Say to me,/“Eat in the kitchen," the poem's essential commentary is one of current exclusion. The narrator portrays a social divide and social policy of discrimination.
Whitman's poem, arguably, depicts the same America yet Whitman's approach and intention is rather contrary to that of Langston Hughes in "I, Too, Sing America."
In "I Hear America Singing," Whitman recognizes the differences between various types of people in America, noting that the voices he hears are "[e]ach singing what belongs to him or her and to none else," yet the ethos of the poem is one of social togetherness and inclusion. Despite difference, America stands as a single tapestry of peoples for Whitman.
There is no bitterness in Whitman's poem, but instead an energized, embracing emotion that might be characterized as joy. Hughes' poem is humorous, but only in an ironic way. He too celebrates a beauty, but his central effort is not to depict that beauty (as it is for Whitman in his poem).
The central effort in Hughes' poem is to articulate the emotional results of the social divide (bitterness and resentment and frustrated pride), even as he looks to a promise of improvement and of increased respect in the future.
Both of these poems share what the author is hearing in his American experience. Whitman hears the building up and creating of a variety of trades and types of people (you see that he doesn't leave out women) and their various contributions to the creation of the United States. He expresses the idea of individuals different from himself taking their part in a unified song. Each of these "carols" are metaphors for the continued strengthening of the country that was but one century before a writhing, boiling concoction that might or might not become a nation. Whitman's words evoke a rejoicing in victory and vitality.
In the next century there is another tune playing, and it too rings with vitality and confidence in success. There is but one "carol" and it has a feeling of separation in Hughes' writing that differs from the sense in Whitman's poem that he is part of the American experience of which he speaks. There is, however, only one singer in Hughes and his carol represents all of his people.
In spite of the sense of separation, I, Too still evokes the same sense of rejoicing. While the concoction of the Civil Rights Movement was still boiling and frothing away at the time of his death, Hughes was confident in the impending outcome. One feels the prescience of those last lines even today in the responses to the Academy Awards and the way in which black actors feel they've been "blocked from the dinner table."
For further discussion: What songs do you hear in your American experience? What are today's builders creating? Is there still a sense of victory?
Both poems, "I Hear America Singing" by Walt Whitman and "I, Too" by Langston Hughes share a similar class of persona but differ immensely in the experience of the individual.
Hughes' persona is a "darker brother" sent "to eat in the kitchen", a blue collar worker who uses the concept of song as a voice of oppression. His version of America is different than Whitman's blue collar personas', who sing "strong" and "melodious" as they work in their given profession. Their songs are sung with the feeling of liberation, having come to America for the freedom of religion and the belief that work can provide freedom. Hughes' persona feels freedom from the idea of one day leaving such work and sitting at the table his employer occupies; the one he has to be away from when company arrives. His America song does not yet represent freedom but continuing to work will create that.
Despite the emotion of the songs being different, both Whitman and Hughes portray strength in the voices of their singers. Hughes' song is one that overcomes adversity stating, "Tomorrow,/I’ll be at the table/When company comes./Nobody’ll dare/Say to me,/“Eat in the kitchen,”/Then." There is strength in the confident words of the persona, knowing that one day he will trade places. Whitman's personas use their strong melodies to create individual voices, "Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else". The strength of the voice in the songs reinforces the ability and work ethic of the individual.
Even though the poems have distinctly different voices and themes, they both express the individual nature of the American experience. It is not so much about having the same experience but the freedom to have a unique one.
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