What inspired Langston Hughes to write "I, Too, Sing America"?
Langston Hughes came to prominence during what is called the Harlem Renaissance and is arguably the most significant writer of the time. In fact, Hughes is often referred to as the "poet laureate" of the Harlem Renaissance.
This time of energetic and enthusiastic growth of the arts in the black community was a stark contrast to their position in society as second-rate citizens. They will not get the rights they deserve for another twenty-five or so years, but Hughes writes about that day in this poem, "I, Too, Sing of America."
In stanza one, he writes about the state of things at this time:
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.
Blacks eating separately from (and largely unseen by) whites was not uncommon, but note his subtle warning that there will come a time when this separation will no longer be tolerated. He is eating and growing stronger, and one day his presence will be felt and known.
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.
This poem was written while Hughes was in Europe, just before he was returning to the United States, because he had been refused passage on a ship because he was black. The poem is an obvious reaction to that incident, a reminder that this is a shameful way to treat a fellow American--and one day things will be different.
Langston Hughes wrote in what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. This was a time period where African Americans where moving and finding more opportunity, especially in the arts. Pride in the African American heritage took hold and this gave many of the artists, like Langston Hughes, inspiration for their work.