In his poem “I, Too,” Langston Hughes addresses the concept of racism in America, and the tension that existed between whites and African Americans. He writes that the blacks have to “eat in the kitchen / When company comes” (3-4), as they are not welcome to sit with everyone else. It’s interesting to note that Hughes lived a number of decades after the Civil War, yet tension still existed between the blacks and the whites; the fact that the war was history didn’t mean that racism didn’t exist.
However, although the poem is about the tension that existed, Hughes does not seem to focus on the negatives or on the differences between the races. What he does instead is that he tries to equate himself with the whites. He tries to downplay their differences, instead focusing on how he is similar to them, and how he loves America the same way they do. He brings their commonalities to the forefront of his discussion – they are all Americans, and one day, the African Americans won’t be the only ones to recognize this.
One way that Hughes equates himself with his white peers is by calling himself the “darker brother” (2). He uses the word brother to show that there’s a familial relationship between him and his white peers, and that he’s their brother, their equal. Just like there’s no status hierarchy between brothers, so too there’s no hierarchy between whites and African Americans.
Hughes also says that blacks have to eat in the kitchen “when company comes” (4). This can be interpreted to mean that it is only when company comes that he has to eat in the kitchen. In other words, deep down, the whites aren’t really racist. However, for some reason, they feel that when company comes, when people are watching them, they have to send the blacks to the kitchen. They’re doing it more out of peer pressure than out of racism. They’re afraid that their company is racist, even though they are not.
This could be Hughes reaction to his times – perhaps he felt that a lot of the racism he was feeling was based on peer pressure – whites were afraid to be too nice to blacks for fear that they themselves wouldn’t be accepted in society. What Hughes tries to do is to equate himself with the white population; he tries to show them that he is as American as they are, that he is “eat[ing] well / and grow[ing] strong” (6-7) as well, and that one day, the whites will come to realize this equality as well.
Questions for discussion:
1. Hughes says that the whites will “be ashamed” (17). What will they be ashamed of – of not treating blacks properly, or of something else?
2. I looked at this poem in a positive light; I downplayed the tension by trying to prove that Hughes was really looking at the positives in the relationships between whites and blacks. Is there another way to interpret the poem, by looking at the negative tensions instead?