Analyze the literary device in "I, too Sing America," by Langston Hughes.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One very important literary device at work in Langston Hughes's "I, Too, Sing America" is an allusion to another famous poem: Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." Understanding this allusion helps to illuminate another aspect of Hughes's poem and lends even more weight to the imagery that he presents. Walt Whitman is often considered America's greatest poet. He wrote of life, the country, democracy, and the people of the world in a transcendental way. In "Song of Myself," he wrote of slave and slaver as one in the same; to Whitman, everyone and everything was worthwhile. However, the poem that Hughes is alluding to here focuses on the life of the country itself. In the poem, Whitman lists a number of professions, all important to the functioning of the country. Carpenters, mechanics, woodcutters, mothers, and young wives, among others, are all held up in his esteem, "[e]ach singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,/ [...] Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs" (Whitman 15-18).

Clearly, Whitman's poem presents an idealized version of America. However, left out of this particular poem is any mention of race. At the time when Whitman wrote his poem, the grand majority of hired jobs belonged to white America, so the majority of description conjures images of white citizens, and therefore is not representative of everyone who was "singing" to make America work. The title of Langston Hughes's poem works as a response to the America that Whitman set up. It is a declaration of existence, a call for inclusion, and an attempt to get the country to wake up and realize that it takes many voices, from many backgrounds, for America to truly sing.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Langston Hughes' poem, "I, Too, Sing America," the author uses an extended metaphor. provides the following definition:

An extended metaphor, also called a conceit, is a metaphor that continues into the sentences that follow. It is often developed at great length, occurring frequently in or throughout a work, and are especially effective in poems and fiction.

This extended metaphor is not very long. Figuratively, the poem seems to be saying that the speaker is like the black sheep of the family, though in this case, he is called the "darker brother." He is sent to the kitchen when company comes so that the family is not embarrassed by him.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes...

But the speaker will use this time of separation for preparation—to grow stronger. In the second stanza, and the speaker refers to tomorrow, when he will sit at the table when company comes, and not be sent away.


I'll be at the table

When company comes.

The speaker says that at that time, no one would dare to tell him to eat in the kitchen.

The closing lines conclude the message of the poem with a sense of hope: people will see that he is really beautiful—nothing and no one to be embarrassed by—and they will be ashamed by their earlier behavior. He states that he also has the right to sing as an American.

The speaker is presenting a metaphor for racism. He starts out by stating that he is an American, but that he is treated like someone the "family" or country is ashamed of, segregated from the rest of society, eating in another room, or literally in a place where only whites are allowed. He will, however, bide his time where he has been sent, and grow stronger and work hard to obtain and enjoy the rights that all people should enjoy in the U.S. regardless of race or ethnicity.

In the second stanza, he refers to "tomorrow," which means some time in the future. The speaker says his time will come when he will be seen as an equal that no one will dare to dismiss or treat differently. The time of his repression will be over.

In conclusion, he believes that people will be able to see his worth, not by looking at the color of his skin, and they will be ashamed for the way they have treated him (referring to all black Americans). He ends the poem stating that he is also an American who can sing the song of freedom and equality.

This is my interpretation.



See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial