“I Too” by Langston Hughes reveals several tensions. One tension that I initially noticed was one of equality and freedom. In line 1 of the poem, Hughes states, “I, too, sing America”. He is clarifying here that he is an American citizen. He is an American citizen just like all the other white American citizens but he isn’t being treated like one. The meaning of this line goes way back in time of slavery, when African Americans were treated as less than human. He’s implying that he too is a human, he is “the darker brother” (2). In other words, we are all related, we are all human beings, and there is no reason why because of the color of his skin, he should be treated unequally. He even tries to relate himself, and creates a relationship or a bond that he has with the white men. He identifies himself not only as a black man but as a part of the American society (in a familial way). He is sent to “eat in the kitchen when the company comes” (3-4), as if he is still a black slave in the house of a white man. He doesn’t let this stop him. He relates this line to how slaves were confined to certain areas of the house when guests came over, and had to be kept hidden or out of sight. He laughs and continues to eat, and grow strong in a civil manor because he knows that he is not a slave. He will not hide in the kitchen, he will eat among the others freely.
He refers to the future when he says “tomorrow” (8). He creates a situation where, if he is at the table and guests come, nobody will dare to say to him “eat in the kitchen” then (9-14). In this bright future that he is envisioning, no one is going to tell him to go eat somewhere else because he is welcome to eat wherever he pleases. No one will dare to consider him less than them or unequal to them.
A non-prejudice future where, they will see his beauty. “They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed—I, too, am America” (15-18). The people who discriminated towards him would be ashamed of themselves, they would see his beauty as a human, just as equal and free as they are.
Hughes is trying to combat the tension of racism and inequality, and show that we are all given “natural” rights. He is proud to be an American citizen, and at the end of the poem asserts his pride in being American.
Two questions for the class:
- What kind of emotions do you think Hughes feels towards the “White Americans”? Do you feel that he resents them? That’s he forgives them? How do these emotions complicate the poem and its meaning?
- How does this poem make you think about what it means to be an American? How is “America” presented in this poem, and does it make you change how you feel?