Poem #40: I, Too by Langston Hughes

Estimated Reading Time: 3.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

Title: I, Too

Langston Hughes

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.


One of Hughes' most famous poems both because of how it so elegantly and succinctly captures the pride and determination of Black culture in the 20th century and also for its reply to Walt Whitman's I Hear America Singing https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46480/i-hear-america-singing.  Without reading Whitman's work, the poem stands perfectly well on its own. 

The speaker inserts himself and other "dark brothers" into the song that is America.  It's a fascinating concept of what it means to "sing America". On a physical level, there's something here to think about being able to breathe America (the concept of "breathing" being a central element that arose in the Black Lives Matter movement with Eric Garner, George Floyd, and others)--to take air into one's body and transform the exhalation into the song that is America.  There's another way to consider that singing "America" is the idea that one gets to speak and be heard--a freedom of speech.  But as the speaker notes, he is denied the opportunity to speak and instead sent to the kitchen to feed. This also means his mouth is closed off; one cannot eat and sing.  Yet, this eating will be the fuel with which he can return to sing the following night.  

And that idea that the speaker maintains his silence so that tomorrow he can be heard and rise to his rightful place among the company is also a theme or measured resistance. The speaker's statement about no one daring to send them to the kitchen is a solid line, but it's the next line that is the best when the speaker declares that it is not just his words but his beauty that will render the company mute.  

But the poem does have an added element when read in conjunction with Whitman's.  Whitman calls out the "varied carols" of different workers--men and women--and yet there is an overriding presumption that given the time and place, these are overwhelmingly white folks who partake of America singing.  Notice here too, America is singing rather than someone singing America--it's a nice inversion on Hughes's part that does much of what I mentioned above.  Still, we get to the end of Whitman's poem and these group of workers gather together for a party--it is the party to which the speaker of "I, Too" is sent to the kitchen.  

I often appreciate when texts are in dialogue with one another. I'm not always aware that is the case but when it is, I gain a greater appreciation of both works.  I also find it encourages me to look at many works and wonder if and to what extent it is in dialogue with others' works.

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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