“I Too” – Langston Hughes

“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?
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2 Responses to “I Too” – Langston Hughes

  1. In answering your first question what I noticed in reading your post is that Hughes is describing the life of a child in their parents’ home. When the company comes they are often seated at the childrens table in the kitchen so “They won’t be bored by the adults.” Reading this poem made me realize that (a) most of my childhood was me being forced to eat in the kitchen for my own sake and (b) more importantly the fact that not only were African Americans treated as inferior people but is similar to the way we treat irresponsible or immature children today. And so to answer your first question Hughes must feel a tremendous amount of resentment towards the whites because he was never given the chance to prove himself at the “adult” table and it was just assumed that he didn’t belong there.

  2. The second question that you ask here is very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it initially, but in truth, Hughes is right on point when he says Americans will feel “ashamed,” as that is indeed in line with how I feel after reading this poem. Hughes clearly addresses ALL of America as rejecting the blacks. He doesn’t say “white people,” he says very clearly, “I, too, sing America.” It’s as if Hughes is saying, don’t try and hide behind some title, as if you weren’t included in the anti-black ideology, for AMERICA as a whole is to blame.
    This idea kind of shifts at the end of the poem however, when Hughes says, “I, too, am America.” Now Hughes wants to be included in “America,” and I would then have to say that here Hughes is talking about all the positive things associated with America and the American Dream. So the good stuff about being American is indeed here, as well as the not so pretty, perhaps immoral underside of America as well.

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