Creative Project – ‘I, Too’ Exegesis
by Sam Watson
I have always been fascinated by the way the different creative mediums interact. With this project I wanted to attempt to translate the written artistic form into a visual artist form. A poem that I find particularly powerful is Langston Hughes’ “I, Too”. This poem focuses on the struggle of African-Americans in the United States. I felt that Hughes’ poem provided fertile ground for exploring the ways different artistic mediums can interact. My goal was to create a photo series of four photos representing the different stages of the poem, as well as its ideas.
To achieve this I attempted to make the relationship clear between the poem and the photos I was going to create. For the first photo I wanted to represent the character in a transitional space, segregated from the main house. In the Hughes’ poem he creates a physical and metaphorical separation between his narrator and mainstream society. The line “they send me to eat in the kitchen/when the company comes” creates a segregation that Hughes uses to represent the segregation of American society as a whole. The first photo was the first of the “before” shots and I wanted to accurately reflect the position and standing of African-Americans in the early 1900s when Hughes wrote the poem. To show this idea visually I asked my model to wear clothing appropriate for the early 1900s. I asked him to dress in clothing that an African-American would’ve worn at the time. The model is placed in a transitional space not within the home but outside, on the edges, on the periphery. This is similar to African-Americans as a whole during that era who will also on the margins of society. Additionally, I shot the “before” shots in sepia time to accentuates their age. I had the model look down at the ground to symbolise his downtrodden feelings, even though Hughes’ poem outlines a certain element of hope in its opening stanzas. In this shot the model is looking down and to the left, as if looking backward to his tortured past. I also took the shots at eye-level to accentuate the facts that even though the African-Americans might have been downtrodden they were, in actuality, on the same level. The rest of society simply did not realize it yet.
In the poem the narrator talks about eating in the kitchen when company comes, implying that the African-Americans are kept separate from the main dining party. No doubt, at the time, African-Americans would have eaten a substandard quality of food, as compared to the white people. To represent this idea, I chose to simply shoot a still life photo of a basic, plain meal that an African-American at the time would be likely to eat. I placed the plate on a simple, rustic table to indicate that there was nothing fancy about the meal that the narrator in Hughes’ poem was about eat. Thing about this shot signifiers the difference in the lifestyle of an African-American as compared to a white man in the early 1900s. That is the point Hughes was driving home in his work, and that is the point I wanted to drive home in mine.
Now we come to the “after” shots. While the previous photos have been shot in sepia tone, these shots are in colour. Immediately, the viewer can see the difference between this plate in the third photo and the previous place in the second photo. In the poll, Hughes says “but tomorrow I’ll be at the table when company comes”. This line is Hughes hope, or even knowledge, that one day African-Americans will enjoy the niceties of life that whites enjoy. The third photo clearly shows these niceties, and the fruits of Hughes hoped racial equality. African-Americans have now “grown strong” quote and are able to sit at the dining table, rather than in the kitchen.
Final photo is, essentially, the combination of Hughes hopes and dreams, as expounded in the poem. If Hughes hoped that Americans would too be America then this photo shows the realization of the American dream. This photo is a far cry from the first photo, and now my model is standing proudly in front of his own home with its stereotypical white picket fence. To put Hughes ideas into action I chose the quintessential American scene of the white picket fence which represents stability, safety and suburbia. The model in this photo, unlike the first photo, is looking proud
and looking up to the sky rather than down to the ground. In this shot the model is looking up and to the right, looking for to his promising future. He is in a powerful stance rather than a downtrodden stance. This time, the model is wearing a suit showing that he is a professional man and works in an office rather than in manual labour. Through this shot we can see the 2realization of Hughes hope that African-Americans would one day become part of mainstream society, and accepted as such.
The historical social and theoretical context of my project is the most important part of it, in my opinion. This poem by Hughes is a very powerful poem and one that resonates me for the ideas it represents and how it conveys them. While the language and structure of the poem is simple, its ideas are far from simple. 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. However, further knowledge of context makes the poem even more engaging. “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. In my work, in my visual representation of this written work, I wanted to pick up on each of these important contextual details and make them come alive through my photography.