Langston Hughes “I, Too”

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?

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8 Responses to Langston Hughes “I, Too”

  1. Marc says:

    For the first question, I believe that Hughes believed that the white people he referred to will eventually look themselves in the mirror and acknowledge their injustice towards the blacks or as Hughes calls himself, “the darker brother”(2). Interestingly, this interpretation presents Hughes as a man of hope, as he seems to fully believe that the whites will come around to treat blacks as equals. Secondly, I interpreted the poem as Hughes telling the story of perseverance for blacks. He stays positive throughout the poem while still emphasizing the mistreatment of blacks in society. He looks to the future as a time of change, which allows him to continue to persevere through these harsh times, saying that in time, “They’ll see how beautiful I am”(16).

  2. Debra Zarny says:

    I really enjoyed Tara’s thought process when reading the lines “eat in the kitchen/ when company comes” (3-4). I think this explanation fits very well with the idea of not focusing on the negatives and instead, looking towards equality. What this line is now saying is that this man isn’t judging this family, he is simply dealing with their thoughts and feelings. In line 17 when the speaker says, “They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed,” I don’t think that he means “ashamed” as a statement of payback, but possibly as one of regret. It is possible that he feels that although the family made him eat in the kitchen because they were afraid of what company might think, done out of peer pressure, he regrets their feelings because he knows that they had it in them to become more accepting.

  3. Max Richter says:

    I think Tara’s view of white’s being kind of afraid of other whites so they act racist is a very interesting way to look at this poem. I didn’t really consider that at first but it does make sense. Why have him around when alone and not when company is there? I read this in a similar light as Tara, more positive and optimistic. Reading multiple times though, Hughes seems to emphasize the fact that he will “grow strong” (7) and that “nobody’ll dare” (11) send him to the kitchen when company comes over. This honestly doesn’t seem so much as equality as much as a violent revolution. Why say “nobody’ll dare” (11) which seems much more intense than need be. It seems more like a threat than peaceful equality. I don’t necessarily see the poem in this light, but it’s possible to view it this way.

  4. Tara sums up the main point of this poem by saying (he in reference to Hues) “he is similar to them, and how he loves America the same way they do.” She then states how hues focus is on their commonalties rather than the differences. I agree. Hues does not seem to be angry or resentful, but rather looks to the future saying “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table” (8-9), and “They’ll see how beautiful I am” (16). Tara also pointed out how in lines three and four Hues talks about how he is sent in the kitchen but only when company comes. The poem does not show any evidence of inequality at other periods of time. I feel that the shame will come from the recognition of mistreatment for reasons that carry no point. The line before says “They’ll see how beautiful I am,” (16). Here, I feel Hues says they will recognize the similarities and strengths of black people. This then causes the shame from the recognition of the pointless prejudice. Though the poem can be interpreted with negative tension, I feel the last stanza is what supports the idea of positive tension. The last stanza starting with “Besides” seems to reflect upon the feelings of the white population. Such reflection would not have been needed had the poem focused on the negative.

  5. Rani says:

    In my opinion. Hughes makes a convincing argument for the white man’s future regret. He supports his claim to equality by asserting that “I too, am America” (18). When whites realize their extreme mistreatment of African Americans, they will surely be ashamed of their actions. According to Hughes, their ignorance and inability to see past incongruities in appearance will cause whites to “be ashamed” (17). While it is true that Hughes does not openly condemn whites for their conduct, he does not try to downplay the tensions either. Although it is true he referred to them “brothers” (2) earlier in the work, his use of the third person “they” in line 16 implies a detachment from the whites. I think it is important to note that he regards them as a separate entity by not using a more personal point of view, such as first person.

  6. Steven says:

    I agree that this poem views the racial tension in a positive light. The speaker seems confident that although today he has to be excused to the kitchen, tomorrow it will be different. There is no uncertainty in this bright future, it is a statement of his confidence in himself and his people. Furthermore, the first and last line show how positive he views equality. The first line “I, too, sing America.” could be related to Whitman’s poem I Hear America Singing. This proves that he is among all other Americans, among the common working man and is no different from the people who dine at the table today. “I, too, am America.” underscores a sense of uniformity among everyone, there are no pretenses to signify a different culture, just America.

  7. I agree with Tara that although racism did exist, Hughes was trying to equate both the whites and the African Americans. I think in the second stanza he takes this idea even further saying that though it may appear now that the whites have the final say and are the ones who “send me to eat in the kitchen” in the future the African Americans will be more free and no one will ever order them around (3). He says there will come a time in the future, “tomorrow”, when he’ll be able to sit at the main table and “Nobody’ll dare/ Say to me, / ‘Eat in the kitchen,’ Then” (8,11-13). I believe that Hughes was hoping there would come a time when racism did not exist, or at least would not be displayed as openly.

  8. Bella Rubin says:

    I think that Tara’s view how “Hughes also says that blacks have to eat in the kitchen “when company comes” (4).”…. “In other words, deep down, the whites aren’t really racist.” This Is an improvement at least not all whites where racist and they where just Putting on a show for their company out of fear. To answer Tara’s first question I think the whites will “be ashamed” of their foolishness. They will realize how there should never have been a separation between them and their “Darker brother.” The whites will see how much he has to offer, “how beautiful” he is and the whites will feel ashamed for themselves that all these years they missed out on good companionship.

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