“I, Too” Summary

I, Too” is a 1926 poem by Langston Hughes that responds to Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.”

  • The speaker states that he, too, is a part of American society, even though, as a Black man, he has been relegated to the “kitchen” rather than offered a seat at the table.
  • Despite this exclusion, the speaker has grown strong and maintains hope for a time in which he and other Black people will be welcomed and appreciated.
  • The speaker says that white people should “be ashamed” for mistreating Black people and continues to look forward to a more inclusive future.

Summary

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Last Updated on September 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

Introduction

Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too” was first published in Hughes’s 1926 collection The Weary Blues. It is often considered a defining work of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement taking place in the United States during the 1920s and 30s that focused on Black identity and community in the aftermath of slavery and during the era of racial segregation. “I, Too” is also a direct response to previous poetic works—primarily Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” In his poem, Whitman figures America as being a song made up of the voices of a diverse array of workers. Hughes’s poem offers a direct response to “I Hear America Singing,” adding in the voice of the forgotten Black population.

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Summary

The first stanza of the poem is composed of a single line: “I, too, sing America.” Here, the speaker asserts his American identity while also indicating that he has been made to feel excluded or alienated from it in the past. This is also a direct allusion to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” with Hughes’s speaker adding his voice into the melody formed by the diverse array of people celebrated in Whitman’s poem. 

In the second stanza, the speaker describes himself as the “darker brother,” implying that he is a Black man. American society has often tried to exclude him, sending him “to eat in the kitchen / when company comes,” both literally and figuratively denying him a seat at the table. However, he reinforces that he is still a part of the American brotherhood, set apart only by the color of his skin. Although he is excluded from the table, he still thrives behind the scenes, able to “laugh,” “eat well,” and “grow strong” even as he is denied recognition by white society. 

The third stanza asserts the speaker’s belief that he will soon claim a proper seat at the table. He has hope for “tomorrow,” highlighting that a history of oppression has not broken his sense of belonging and national identity. He looks forward to being able to sit “at the table / when company comes,” no longer confined to the shadows and hidden away, but rather welcomed with pride. At a time when Black Americans were segregated from white Americans in most spaces, the speaker envisions a world where people may all sit together at one table. He hopes that “nobody’ll dare” tell him to “eat in the kitchen,” instead embracing his right to claim both a voice in the cultural conversation and an American identity for himself. However, the final line of the stanza—a single word: “then”—is a reminder that this is an imagined and longed-for future, not the present reality. 

In the fourth stanza, the speaker expands on his belief that a day will come when he and others like him will be properly recognized as Americans. He asserts that Black people like himself are “beautiful” and that white people should “be ashamed” of treating them as lesser. For so long, Black people have been relegated to metaphorically eating “in the kitchen” rather than at the dinner table, excluded from the conversation and treated as something shameful that must be hidden away. Now, the speaker believes a change is imminent, and he looks forward to that promised tomorrow when the beauty of Black Americans is recognized.

The fifth and final stanza is also composed of a single line: “I, too, am America.” The speaker reiterates his assertion from the first stanza while also strengthening it: he not only identifies as an American; he is also an essential part of what makes up America. By excluding Black people from the conversation, only an incomplete picture of America can be formed.

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