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...
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