Explain the poem "I, Too," by Langston Hughes. 

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Langston Hughes wrote the poem “I, Too,” forty-five years before Dr. Martin Luther King spoke the words:  “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

The poem was published in 1925.  Hughes wrote about the frustrations of the black man in his poetry.  He never gave up because he envisioned an America in which black and white men would eat at the same table and be considered equal Americans.

The setting of the poem is “everywhere America” that believed that black men were not Americans or equal to the white men as human beings.   

The narration is first person with the poet as the narrator.  Hughes was considered the foremost of the Harlem Renaissance poets.   When he wrote or spoke, the black man listened because what Hughes said was exactly what the black man felt. The poem is told in the present tense.

The form of the poem is free verse.  It is written in five brief stanzas.  The sentences are short and conversational in fluidity, yet the tone is strong.  

1st stanza

The title of the poem is a reference to the poem by Walt Whitman titled “I Hear America Singing.” Hughes’ poem enhances the idea that “Hey, wait a minute, I too am an American.  I can sing also." I am an American.  I was born in America and so were my parents.  Just because I am Black does not take away my patriotism or love for my country. 

2nd stanza

Hughes refers to the black man metaphorically as “the darker brother.”   All Americans have something in common: their heritage. Unfortunately in the time that Hughes was writing, the black man was not considered an equal in any respect.  He was not allowed to use the same restrooms, water fountains, or eat at the fountain bar in the drug store. In the home where he worked as a servant, handy man, or chauffeur, he was expected to eat in the kitchen with the rest of the help.

“I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes…”

The black man goes on, laughs, eats his dinner, and grows stronger.  This  statement implies that the “Negroes” were biding their time.  Living their lives and growing tough as an ethnic group led the way to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

3rd stanza

Hughes perceives a tomorrow in America where the black man will be welcome to eat at the table with everyone else. He will dare not ask him to sit at the table. 

The implication of the word dare is  threatening because the  black Americans will assert themselves as equal at some point in the future; consequently, because of their power, they will not stand for anymore degradation.

4th stanza

The beauty of the black man is not just the outward appearance.  It is the quality of his character. To Hughes and  black Americans, the only difference between the white man and the black man was the color of the skin—not his intelligence, his personality, his character, or anything else.  If given the same freedom and equality, the black man would rise above his circumstances just as the white man has.  

5th stanza

To reinforce his idea, the poet ends with the impetus of the entire poem: “I, too, am America.” What a powerful statement for a black man in the era in which it was written!  Hughes convincingly proves with his wonderful expression and creativity that it took too long for the black man to be accepted as an authentic American. 

Read the study guide:
I, Too, Sing America

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