Last Updated on December 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1251
To contextualize Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” (1926)—which is sometimes also known as “I, Too, Sing America,” after its first line—it is helpful to refer to two earlier poems by Walt Whitman. “I Hear America Singing” and “I Sing the Body Electric” are exuberant celebrations of the American identity and universal...
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To contextualize Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” (1926)—which is sometimes also known as “I, Too, Sing America,” after its first line—it is helpful to refer to two earlier poems by Walt Whitman. “I Hear America Singing” and “I Sing the Body Electric” are exuberant celebrations of the American identity and universal humanity, respectively. In “I Hear America Singing,” the voices of workers who build American society—the “mason,” “the girl sewing or washing”—are fiercely individual, yet convergent in their common goal. In “I Sing the Body Electric,” everyone has the same “lung-sponges . . . the bowels sweet and clean,” and is therefore united in their flesh-and-blood reality.
Both of Whitman’s poems reflect the influence of transcendentalism, a nineteenth-century philosophy which feted the individual as part of a larger universal spirit. At its most idealistic, transcendentalism spoke of equality and brotherhood. Since all humans were individual yet connected, no one was inferior by race, gender, or class. Certainly, Whitman, who was an abolitionist, partook in these idealistic views. However, a more critical inquiry into Whitman’s poems raises an implacable question: in rendering all Americans as similar, is there a danger of “whitewashing” certain experiences, especially the painful reality of racial discrimination? It is in response to this question that Hughes’s poem gains more meaning.
Like many other American poets, Hughes admired Whitman’s formal innovation. Written in free verse like most of Whitman’s poems, “I, Too” both draws inspiration from and responds to the older poet. It can be said to restore the experience of blackness that Whitman’s universal experience omits. However, similarities with Whitman end here. Though the declarative tone of “I, Too” is similar to Whitman’s, the poem’s language is unique to Hughes and is laid out on the page in a minimalist, surprisingly contemporary style. The poem’s uncluttered syntax and short line length are distinct from Whitman’s longer lines and aggregated clauses; Hughes’s vocabulary in “I, Too” is also deliberately simple. An assertion of identity, Hughes’s five-stanza poem moves between short, powerful lines that strategically employ both end-stopping and enjambment.
I, too, sing America.
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.
The end-stopped opening lines of stanzas 1 and 2 reflect a matter-of fact assertion of holistic identity. The contrast of these lines with the enjambment of the following two lines creates a syncopated, fresh effect. Lines 5, 6, and 7 again end in pauses, thus creating tonal variance. Interestingly, the line lengths vary as well, with the last three lines of stanza 2 shortening and slowing down the poem’s tempo. Further, the simple internal rhythm of these three-word lines (“But I laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong”) adds musicality to the poem.
Stanzas 3, 4, and 5 contain a similar mix of line lengths. Stanza 3 begins and ends with single-word lines (“Tomorrow” and “Then”) to underscore the promise of the future. Additionally, the alliterative line “When company comes,” is repeated in both stanzas 2 and 3, adding rhythm. The refrain “I, too, sing America,” changes slightly at the end—becoming “I, too, am America”—and rounds out the poem. Thus, Hughes uses a mix of line lengths and sound effects to add music to the free verse form. The variations in tempo and rhythm, however, are not just stylistic, but also thematic, as seen in the poem’s concerns and use of figurative language.
The “too” of the opening line asserts the poet’s unique African American voice. Note the absence of a comma between “sing” and “America.” The poet is not asserting to America that he also sings, but that he sings America, bringing America into being with his song. Thus, he immediately claims the right to tell the American story, his American story. Another interesting way to interpret the “too,” separated and emphasized by commas, is through its homophone, “two.” In the poem, Hughes presents version two of America, one that is traditionally kept away from books and company.
To illustrate his point, Hughes uses the extended metaphor of the home as America through the poem. Just like a less-valued family member at home, the “darker brother” is shunned in America. Although America is built on the labor of her darker brothers, she does not acknowledge them in “company” or on the world stage. The alliteration, “when company comes,” underscores the unfairness of this attitude. Sending them “to eat in the kitchen” is a direct historical allusion to the discriminatory treatment meted out to plantation slaves in particular, as well as workers in general. Although the food they farm and cook is good enough for the privileged to consume, the company of its growers and makers is deemed inferior.
While the first few, longer lines of the second stanza describe the status quo, the latter half of the stanza illustrates the speaker’s response. To record the measured power of this response, the lines begin to shorten and center around basic verbs. Refusing to let his identity be subsumed, the “darker brother” will “laugh,” “and eat well,” and “grow strong” in the segregated kitchen itself.
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.
The next three stanzas develop this forward-looking response. While the single-word line “Tomorrow” is poised as an arrow into the future, the next two lines are filled with contained rage and promise. The “darker brother” is merely waiting out his time, ready for the day when nobody will dare dismiss him. “Then” is the hope of the desegregated state of American society which Hughes’s poem foreshadows.
Notably, “I, Too,” was published in 1926, at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Although the African American identity was being articulated through the arts, political equality was decades away. Segregationist laws were still applicable, to the extent that there were even different sports leagues for African Americans. Against this backdrop, Hughes’s vision is remarkably prescient, predicting the end of racial segregation.
However, the change Hughes predicts is not just political, but also spiritual, as revealed through the changing language of stanza 4. Not only will the darker brother get a rightful place at the family table, the family will realize “how beautiful” he is and “be ashamed” of their earlier dismissal. The use of the strong adjectives “beautiful” and “ashamed” is a striking departure from the direct verbs and milder adjectives (“eat well,” “grow strong”) that have dominated the poem till this point. The specificity in words conveys two very specific responses: to both the denigration of the black body and the discrimination faced by African Americans. Because the beauty of the black form often goes unacknowledged, Hughes uses the particular word “beautiful” to describe the “darker brother.” The rest of the family—that is, the rest of America—will be “ashamed,” because shame is the only appropriate response to their past actions toward the African American community.
Thus, acknowledging both black beauty and white shame, the poet’s assertion, “I, too, sing America,” is transformed to the even more powerful “I, too, am America.” Yet Hughes’s vision is still inclusive, because he refers to the African American community as “brother” or kin to America. Similarly, in wanting the rest of America to recognize both his beauty and their shame, the poet indicates a desire for restorative, rather than retributive, justice.