More Than Just Whitman

“I, Too”

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.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

This poem by Langston Hughes comes as a response to the Walt Whitman poem “I Hear America Singing.” Whitman writes of a number of different occupations and how the sound of them working creates the harmonious orchestra of America. The speaker in the”I, Too” establishes that he too sings America with poem’s first line.  The stanza that follows begins a separate experience from the one Whitman penned.  Establishing himself as “the darker brother” the narrator submits that he is hidden in the kitchen when company comes.  This is a reference to the black identity being hidden in the work force, the kitchen a site of most indoor housework.  However, the speaker laughs and builds strength, this referencing the growth of the black community.  In the third stanza, we see a promise.  The speaker says on the next day he’ll sit at the table and no one will tell him to hide as he eats again.  The “Tomorrow” in this poem is a distant future when blacks attain equal rights and status,  While the tone of the third stanza reads fierce and threatening (“Nobody’ll dare”), the second to last stanza shares a more vulnerable hope.  The speaker claims those who once hid him will recognize his beauty and feel shame.  This again references the future, not in law alone, but belief as well.  The poem ends with a variation on the first line “I, too, am America.”  It comes as a reminder to the audience that the history and future of black culture is tired to the culture of America as much as any other.  This is an example of social justice poetry because it touches on the prejudice of a race through the metaphor of a household, and in reference to a renowned poem. Whitman wrote that poem in a period when black people were still no considered people.  “I Hear America Singing” is fairly ageless, but when Hughes wrote his response it was to remind the audience that Black culture helped build the country as well.  Hughes is fighting against a deeper sewn prejudice: the American history of ignorance.  But the poem also offers something seen in many works of social justice: hope for better times to come.

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