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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.