What are two ways that Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” is similar to and different from Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”?

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Two ways that Langston Hughes's "I, Too" is similar to Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing" are that both poems involve singing and a sense of pride in America. Two ways the poems are different are that Hughes's narrator is excluded from certain aspects of American society while Whitman's is not and that Whitman's poem focuses on many different people while Hughes's focuses on one man. 

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First, Whitman's poem describes many different types of Americans, with varied jobs and responsibilities: mechanics, carpenters, masons, boatmen, shoemakers, wood-cutters, mothers, wives, and young girls. All go about their own lives with relative liberty and apparent joy. Hughes's poem describes only one person: a black person who seems to be...

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representative of everyone who is affected by the oppressive laws and traditions that exist in America.

Second, the liberty and freedom of identity and expression that seem to be part of the lives of the subjects of Whitman's poem are not shared by the speaker or Hughes's poem. Instead, he is sent to "eat in the kitchen" rather than being allowed to participate fully. However, he does "laugh" and "grow strong," because he knows that he will, someday, enjoy a freedom that he does not currently possess.

Third, the people represented by the poems do all seem to associate America with freedom and empowerment and joy, though Hughes's narrator does not currently enjoy it while Whitman's varied peoples do seem to. All of these people also seem to feel a sense of pride in the country and a sense of belonging to it.

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Langston Hughes's "I, Too" is a response to Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." The two poems are similar in that they both are celebrating the possibilities of America. Whitman's speaker delights in the "singing," or joy, of the common person, such as the carpenter, the shoemaker, or the young mother. Hughes likewise celebrates the simple status of the black man, who is part of what makes America a diverse and energetic nation. This black man is a person who "laugh[s]" and "grow[s] strong."

Second, the poems are alike in being lyrical, first-person responses to the American experience. They are both subjective and emotional.

The poems, however, differ in several ways. First, Whitman's "I" attempts to be all-inclusive. He tries to sweep all of the American people under his wing and capture their energy and joy. Hughes, in contrast, focuses on the more singular experience of the black person in America. His speaker has to wave his hand to be noticed and say I "too" am here.

Second, Hughes's poem has an edge that Whitman's does not. Whitman's speaker, at least in these verses, depicts only the inclusivity of the American experience: "the party of young fellows, robust, friendly." In contrast, Hughes's speaker notes the exclusivity of life for a segregated black man: "They send me to eat in the kitchen." If Whitman's exuberant America exists in the here and now, Hughes's exuberant America is part of a dream for the future:

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Hughes appreciates the potential of America, as does Whitman; but he sees it as a dream deferred for blacks people.
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It is important to identify the authors and understand their history prior to beginning any literary analysis, as it will shape the way readers understand the piece of work.

Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, New York (a suburb outside of the city) and would live a majority of his adult life in Brooklyn, New York City. He was from a large family and began to show artistic prowess at a young age. He was exposed to some of the greatest writers, like Shakespeare and Dante because of his love for the written word. His poem "I Hear America Singing" was published in his 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Missouri and spent the majority of his childhood there until he began moving at around thirteen years old. He traveled around the world doing less-than-glamorous jobs: he was a cook, a busboy, and a launderer. Eventually, he would settle down in Harlem around 1930, where he would spend the majority of his adult life. His poem "I, Too" was published in 1926 and contributed to the Harlem Renaissance, an artistic cultural movement that was working to portray the life of the African American community in the US.

These poems have many similarities and differences, often using the same ideas to contrast each other. Here are two of them:

  1. Both discuss singing. It is not too much of a leap to assume that Hughes would have been aware of Whitman's poem and was using this precise word to dialogue with Whitman. When looking at this word, it's worthwhile to ask: would Hughes have meant singing in the same way that Whitman did?
  2. Both are about pride. Whitman's poem is about everyday, ordinary people singing "America" as they go about their daily life. Hughes begins his poem by saying, "I, too, sing America" and goes on to state that he is sent to eat in the kitchen when company comes but that "tomorrow" he will sit at the table with everyone else, because he "too, [is] America." Hughes is proud and he will no longer hide himself. Is this pride the same type of pride that Whitman portrayed? Is it different? If so, how?
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How is Langston Hughes's poem "I, too, Sing America" an answer to, or continuation of, Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing"? At first these poems appear to be very different. How can you synthesize them? How does the Hughes poem bring race into the Whitman poem? Can the poems be compared in terms of both form and content? How do the poems connect? How do they not connect?

At face value, Hughes's "I, Too, Sing America" reads as an outright response to Whitman's "I Hear America Singing."

In the earlier poem, Whitman celebrates American society, in particular its workmen. In his characteristic free verse, he paints an idyllic (even utopian) picture of a modern, industrial America in which the workers sing as they work or as they finish work.

Hughes's response is cutting, sparse, and direct. He stakes his claim: "I, too, sing America." His point is simple: he and his demographic are entirely written out of Whitman's industrial idyll. He is sent to the kitchen when the company comes—his America is not a free one nor one to sing about.

His poem, therefore, serves as a riposte to Whitman's. Stylistically, it is stripped down. In terms of content and tone, it is unapologetic and steadfast. He, too, is America, and he will not be left out again.

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