Analysis of Poem "I,Too" by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes and I, Too
I, Too is a short, free verse poem that focuses on African American identity within the dominant white culture of the USA. It encapsulates the history of oppression of black people by means of slavery, denial of rights and inequality.
Inspired by Walt Whitman's 'I Sing the Body Electric', Hughes must have intended the poem's first line as a contrasting clarion call - the black person is worthy to be an American too, to sing of the country that they help build.
The poem's first person male speaker could be young or old but is sending out the still relevant message of hope for change. By placing the speaker in a house, metaphorically the USA, Hughes brings the issue of black rights into the personal domestic space of the American people.
This connects directly back to Abraham Lincoln, the American civil war and the role of African American slaves in the great houses of plantation owners. Lincoln himself said that: 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'
So when this poem was first published in the book The Weary Blues in 1926, Langston Hughes hit a still raw nerve which helped open up the thorny issue of civil rights.
He wrote: 'I am a Negro/ Black as the night is black,/ Black like the depths of my Africa.
The young black poet at 24 years old would shine in a pivotal role in what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural explosion in New York, a vibrant expression of black creativity and identity which included music, art and poetry.
I, Too is seen as one of the poems that transformed and informed thinking in mainstream society at the time and is still enjoyed today.
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.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Analysis of I, Too
I, Too is a free verse poem of 18 short lines, made up of 5 stanzas. There is no rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) varies from line to line.
This poem has an informal, modern look on the page, despite it being nearly one hundred years old. The short lines, some with only one word, send a message of deliberate, direct speech - the speaker is addressing an audience, or replying to a rhetorical question.
- That separate first line is a personal statement which echoes the titles from Walt Whitman's poems 'I Sing a Body Electric' and also 'I Hear America Singing'.
- The speaker is adding his defiant, strong, individual voice to that of the collective, just in case anyone doubts his intention.
The second line is also a complete sentence, a declaration of difference. Here is the voice of a black male, different yes, but still related, still a brother. Is that a brother to all men, black and white? It isn't clear.
The next five lines sum up the speaker's life in the present time. Apart from the enjambment between the second and third lines, each line is punctuated, so there are pauses for the reader, a second in which to digest the meaning.
He is sent to the kitchen to eat his food for some reason but it doesn't seem to bother him that much.
Just who are 'They' - the people who send the speaker out to eat in the kitchen? These must be the white house owners, those with power, who do not want the dark-skinned man around when their friends or family come to visit.
They fear that he might cause something terrible to happen. They don't want to mingle with his type. He may appear to be a subservient type, but he is biding his time.
To his credit he sees through their false, social conventions. He's happy enough and has a healthy appetite which helps him cope with the apartheid. And the seventh line...And grow strong... suggests that the status quo cannot last.
- This speaker is thinking about the future, not necessarily the immediate 24 hour future but a time when he and his darker brethren will not be subject to humiliation or condemned to retreat into the kitchen.
He'll be at the table, that is, he'll have his own space and opportunity to partake of the feast that is America's bounty. He won't be told to 'Eat in the kitchen' any longer because times will be different, the culture will be changed and those who dictate to him now will see him in a different light.
These same people who treated him with such cruelty and disdain will then conclude that they were wrong. They'll regret their previous actions.
The last line is a parallel with the opening one and reinforces the idea of the speaker fully integrated - now he is America. No longer excluded, no longer a problem but a solution, no longer a human divided but a whole person totally identified as American.
Black Poets of the United States, Jean Wagner, Uni of Illinois, 1973
© 2018 Andrew Spacey