What is the subject matter of Langston Hughes' poem "I, Too"?

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The subject of the poem "I, Too" by Langston Hughes is the oppression of African Americans in a period of Jim Crow laws. Hughes addresses the hope for African Americans to have a physical and metaphorical seat at the table, meaning sharing the same facilities as whites and having their opinions heard. The poem looks to a possible future with racial inclusion.

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The historical context is important to decipher the true subject of this poem. Hughes published this poem during the Harlem Renaissance, long before the Civil Rights Movement. During this time, Jim Crow Laws dictated many facets of American society, dividing the world into areas for whites and areas for blacks.

In this poem, the speaker has been literally and metaphorically separated from white America, forced to be hidden away from "company." In a literal sense, this conjures a historical era when many upper-class white families hired African Americans to help around their houses; however, in social gatherings, these employees were not to be seen. This is reflected in these lines:

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,

"Having a place at the table" is also a metaphorical phrase used in American society. It means that one's ideas are considered and included. In this poem, the speaker also feels excluded from the metaphorical table, noting that his perspective is not important to whites.

The speaker is dissatisfied but not defeated. Instead, he continues growing strong and laughing. He knows the beauty of his culture and experience, and even in the world of Jim Crow Laws he is confident that one day he, too, will be included in the idea of America. The poem reflects a hopeful possibility for a more inclusive America even in the midst of a historically divisive moment in American history.

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Explain the poem "I, Too," by Langston Hughes. 

Langston Hughes wrote the poem “I, Too,” forty-five years before Dr. Martin Luther King spoke the words:  “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

The poem was published in 1925.  Hughes wrote about the frustrations of the black man in his poetry.  He never gave up because he envisioned an America in which black and white men would eat at the same table and be considered equal Americans.

The setting of the poem is “everywhere America” that believed that black men were not Americans or equal to the white men as human beings.   

The narration is first person with the poet as the narrator.  Hughes was considered the foremost of the Harlem Renaissance poets.   When he wrote or spoke, the black man listened because what Hughes said was exactly what the black man felt. The poem is told in the present tense.

The form of the poem is free verse.  It is written in five brief stanzas.  The sentences are short and conversational in fluidity, yet the tone is strong.  

1st stanza

The title of the poem is a reference to the poem by Walt Whitman titled “I Hear America Singing.” Hughes’ poem enhances the idea that “Hey, wait a minute, I too am an American.  I can sing also." I am an American.  I was born in America and so were my parents.  Just because I am Black does not take away my patriotism or love for my country. 

2nd stanza

Hughes refers to the black man metaphorically as “the darker brother.”   All Americans have something in common: their heritage. Unfortunately in the time that Hughes was writing, the black man was not considered an equal in any respect.  He was not allowed to use the same restrooms, water fountains, or eat at the fountain bar in the drug store. In the home where he worked as a servant, handy man, or chauffeur, he was expected to eat in the kitchen with the rest of the help.

“I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes…”

The black man goes on, laughs, eats his dinner, and grows stronger.  This  statement implies that the “Negroes” were biding their time.  Living their lives and growing tough as an ethnic group led the way to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

3rd stanza

Hughes perceives a tomorrow in America where the black man will be welcome to eat at the table with everyone else. He will dare not ask him to sit at the table. 

The implication of the word dare is  threatening because the  black Americans will assert themselves as equal at some point in the future; consequently, because of their power, they will not stand for anymore degradation.

4th stanza

The beauty of the black man is not just the outward appearance.  It is the quality of his character. To Hughes and  black Americans, the only difference between the white man and the black man was the color of the skin—not his intelligence, his personality, his character, or anything else.  If given the same freedom and equality, the black man would rise above his circumstances just as the white man has.  

5th stanza

To reinforce his idea, the poet ends with the impetus of the entire poem: “I, too, am America.” What a powerful statement for a black man in the era in which it was written!  Hughes convincingly proves with his wonderful expression and creativity that it took too long for the black man to be accepted as an authentic American. 

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