In the opening of the film, after the setting is established with juxtaposed cross-over scenes, Professor Tolson (played by Denzel Washington) stands on his chair, then his desk, then recites all but the first line of the Langston Hughes poem, "I, Too":
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America. (1925)
Tolson then tells his students that he will teach them new poets, poets associated with "a Revolution going on ... in the North .... in Harlem. They're changing the way blacks in America think." He then recites a small excerpt from the last half of the 1926 Gwendolyn Bennett poem, "Hatred":
Hating you shall be a game
Played with cool hands
And slim fingers.
Your heart will yearn
For the lonely splendor
Of the pine tree
While rekindled fires
In my eyes
Shall wound you like swift arrows.
Memory will lay its hands
Upon your breast
And you will understand
Tolson begins then to list off names of some of the notable figures inciting the literary and cultural revolution in Harlem. As he does so, he speaks a line from the middle of the Countee Cullen poem, "Saturday's Child." As he does so, one of the male students in the back corner of the class unconsciously interrupts with the poet's name, the poem's title and the year the poem was written.
Some are teethed on a silver spoon,
With the stars strung for a rattle;
I cut my teeth as the black raccoon--
For implements of battle.
Some are swaddled in silk and down,
And heralded by a star;
They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown
On a night that was black as tar.
Death cut the strings that gave me life,
And handed me to Sorrow,
The only kind of middle wife
My folks could beg or borrow.
The reason Tolson does is this, the reason he recites these poem excerpts to his students, and does so in such a dramatic fashion and with such a dramatic flare, is two-fold.
Firstly, Tolson wants to engage his students. He wants to engage their hearts as well as their minds. He wants to engage their wonder, compassion and curiosity in order to incite their zeal, their drive, their desire to feel the fire of the revolution in the North, to feel the change in "the way blacks in America think."
Secondly, Tolson wants to inspire their intellectual exertion because, for one thing, he wants them to excel in his class because he believes literature is important to shaping society and to building culture. For another thing, he wants to inspire their intellectual exertion because he wants them to learn to think logically and critically because he wants them to become debaters, whether on or off the debate team.
What Tolson hoped would be gained by his recitation (note that he did not read anything to them, he recited from memory) was an intellectual compulsion to think, see, and express the most logical, critical and profound thoughts of which they were able and which would have the power of persuasion, the power to shape a revolutionary rebirth of society, a society where the "darker brother" will "be at the table / When company comes."