What is ‘I, Too’ about?
by Sam Watson
In one of my previous posts I showed the poetry work of Langston Hughes’ “I, Too”. As I re-read this poem over and over again this sparked an idea for my ‘Creative Project’. The creation of a photographic series of “I, Too”. But before I went ahead with taking photos for this series, I decided to study the text itself.
Here are my thoughts and idea about what I believe the poem means.
The black struggle for equality and liberation from an inferior position is often a topic in American poetry. “I, Too” by Langston Hughes is a free verse, allegorical poem that not only responds to two famous texts but also conveys a strong message about racism in America. Hughes uses the poem to say many things about the social dynamics of America such as segregation, hope for progress, and patriotism and pride, using the poetic devices of intertextuality, metaphor, and imagery.
To fully understand what Hughes is trying to say in “I, Too”, the reader must fully understand the context of this poem. “I, Too” is actually a poetic response to Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing”. Whitman’s poem was written in 1860 and served as a call for unity despite the impending Civil War. The call for unity and patriotism that is made in Whitman’s poem is paralleled in Hughes’ poem. Yet, Whitman’s poem may not have been referring to the blacks as well as the whites, as the workers named in “I Hear America Singing” would, in all likelihood, be white. Thus, while Whitman calls for American unity in the face of the Civil War, he is not advocating for racial unity, mirroring his personal views against the abolition of slavery and black suffrage. Hughes’ poem is also a response to Ezra Pound’s 1909 essay entitled, “What I Feel About Walt Whitman”. In that essay, Pound calls Whitman “Americas poet… He is America”. When Hughes says, “I, Too, am America” this is an obvious reference to Pound’s essay, highlighting a parallel theme in Whitman’s poem and giving the “too” in Hughes’ poem added meaning. When Hughes wrote “I, Too” in 1925, World War I had just ended and there was a growing push for racial equality from both blacks and whites as blacks had defended America alongside whites overseas. The disconnect between the equality they had experienced during the war and the inequality they faced at home was a growing source of dissatisfaction. Thus, it is impossible to fully understand what Hughes is trying to say in “I, Too” without understanding the context of the poem as a reply to the assertions of other authors’ earlier writings.
Segregation is a strong idea Hughes’ poem is trying to communicate, using metaphor and imagery. In “I, Too” the idea of segregation conveyed in the first stanza through, “they send me to eat in the kitchen/ When company comes”. These lines explicitly depict segregation, both within the household environment, but also, metaphorically, in public areas. The word “company” has a dual meaning, as it not only refers to white people as a race, but also other countries. When other countries looked at America, America did not want its image as a bastion of freedom and liberty to be tainted by symbols of the nation’s unresolved racial tension. The use of the word “they” also has a dual meaning, representing not only slave owners but also America itself. In the early 1900s, America turned a blind eye to the inequalities to reconcile their meta-perception with their image on the world stage. This theme is mirrored in the demand that the black slave to eat in the kitchen, rather than the dining room table, creating both a physical and social separation. The use of the word “brother” in the second line of the first stanza indicates Hughes’ call for unity. The mere appearance of the word brother fabricates an idea of unity in the reader’s mind—a unity that was completely absent during that time. Thus, the narrator not only wants household unity but also national, racial unity. The narrator is suggesting that they are the “darker brother” in the same way a family has an older brother. He is also suggesting that they are all part of the same family, the American family. The poem is trying to communicate ideas about segregation and disunity in the nation, using poetic devices of metaphor and imagery.
Hope and defiance are ideas Hughes seeks to express in “I, Too” using structure and symbolism. The narrator displays the qualities of defiance in different parts of the poem. When the narrator says in the fourth line of the third stanza, “But I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong” it becomes evident that he is defiant and is resilient to racism. The fact that he has been excluded is of no consequence and he grows strong
waiting for the time when there is equality. Defiance can be seen later in the poem in the first line of the third stanza by the use of the word “besides”. The use of “besides” creates an idea that the small third stanza is introspective, rather than public like the rest of the poem, which, in turn, alludes to the black people during this time period were patient. The patience and hope that they had during this period of racism and brutality was what kept the African American race together. The idea of hope in this poem can be seen in every stanza; however, it is mostly strongly shown in the second stanza. The words “tomorrow” and “then” which bookend the stanza are very important as they depict the hope that the narrator has for progress in race relations, a confidence that the future will be better. The poem is trying to say things about hope and defiance through the use of structure and word placement and help to convey a major theme of racism in the United States.
The last two ideas conveyed in “I, Too” are patriotism and pride, through the use of poetic techniques such as intertextual references and metaphor. The idea of patriotism and pride can be seen in the first line of the poem, through “I, too, sing America”. This sentence is an intertextual reference to Walt Whitman’s poem, which expresses pride for the “strong” American nature. However, Hughes, in saying that he “too” sings, emphasises that he is as strong as any other American. “Sing” also has a second patriotic connotation, as a reference to the American national anthem. Not only does the narrator sing for America with pride and patriotism, but he also sings it with alongside the white race, an idea of racial unity that is not seen in Whitman’s poem. Patriotism and pride are again seen in the last line of the poem, “I, too, am America”. Through changing the word “sing” with “am” Hughes not only creates an idea of unity but responds to Pound’s essay by direct reference. Hughes also continues with the idea of pride in this line by the narrator essentially creating the message that blacks are as important and beneficial to the American family as whites. It could be said that the principles that underlie the black struggle for equality are the principles upon which America was built, making them an embodiment of American ideals. Pride can then be seen again in the second stanza through, “they’ll see how beautiful I am” in the second line. In this case, the narrator is demonstrating his self worth. Pride and patriotism can often be seen together in this text and are conveyed by poetic devices such as intertextuality and metaphor, supporting the overarching theme of racism.
Thus, it can be seen that Hughes conveys the ideas of segregation and disunity, hope and defiance, and patriotism and pride in “I, Too” through intertextual references, metaphor and structure. The context of the poem is important as understanding that Hughes is responding to Whitman and Pound adds depth to the meaning of his comments on racism, unity and American identity. Segregation is shown in the poem through the metaphor of the kitchen representing broader society. Hope is exemplified in the structure and choice of words, particularly the use of “tomorrow” and “then” to convey the narrator’s hope and confidence that there will be progress towards racial unity. The final themes communicated by Hughes are patriotism and pride, as the whole poem is a metaphor with the narrator claiming that he is a representative of America and is, indeed, an embodiment of the principles upon which America was founded. Therefore Hughes’ poem “I, Too” conveys the ideas of segregation and disunity, hope and defiance, and patriotism and pride using intertextual references, metaphor and structure