Langston Hughes was a potential Black American poet [1902-1967] who was an exponent of Harlem Renaissance in New York in the ‘20s. The motto of Harlem Renaissance was winning a status of equality for the Afro-Americans. As Hughes resided in a ghetto in Harlem it became an opportunity for him in spearheading the movement. In almost all his poems, we hear a volley of protest hurled against those who differentiated between the Black and the White-skinned Americans. Langston Hughes’s specialty was voicing protest against all kinds of inequality in easy, day-to-day diction that can be easily understood by the common populace.
Langston Hughes was a revered literary personality of the’20s who had written brilliant poems along with drama, fiction et al. But his poetical lines touch the inmost chord of every reader—be he a scholarly reader or a run-of-the-mill one. The poems written by Langston Hughes contained lines which were built on the drops of blood of the ignored, ‘pushed to the periphery’, Black populace of America. In the poem “I, Too”, the very title suggests that Hughes was voicing the protest against the Whites, against the privileged class of the-then America. He was joining his “darker brothers” in rising up in arms.
In the compass of nineteen easy lines, I, Too, strongly stages a protest against the discrimination made in case of the Black Americans. The line with which the poem begins is: “I too sing America.”…In “I hear America singing,” Whitman included all the inhabitants of America from all walks of life. But here the word “I, too” signifies that he is a sprocket in the wheel, he is one among the many who stands against all inequalities pitted against his brothers along with himself. This inequality makes him aggressive, adamant and he dares sing “America” where he and his brothers were born and brought up. Naturally, his citizenship in the land of America was no “acquired” one! How could he brook such differentiation made according to his color of skin? The seed of “apartheid”, a feeling of animosity was thus taking roots in the hearts of the Black populace! In the line “I am the darker brother”, the emphasis automatically falls on “darker”! According to Baxter R. Miller, “the darker brothers were generally ill-fed , ugly and barred from a spontaneous display in front of all”.[1989, p-24] In a similar kind of poem Let America be America Again, we hear a strong voice against such schism based on the feelings of Apartheid: “O let my land be a land where Liberty/ Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath/But opportunity is real, and life is free,/Equality is in the air we breathe./[There’s never been equality for me,/Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free’] Hughes had stressed upon the word “equality” and registered his disgust in this shackled existence in the ‘homeland of the free’. Throughout this poem the refrain ran as “America never was America to me” and “It never was America to me.” And lastly, Hughes puts forth a wild demand, “O let America be America again”!
In the poem I, Too, as we read on , we come across the lines where I, the “darker brother” is driven to the kitchen by his superiors when ‘the company’[i.e the White Americans] files in. He deliberately does not protest and keeps on guzzling the food offered to him. He eats, gets stronger. And with renewed confidence and assertion , he feels that that “Tomorrow” is sure to surface when “nobody’ ll dare” ask him to retire to the kitchen to have his meal He must be presentable by then with all his looks and grandeur. They themselves will be ashamed of keeping him afar.
Langston Hughes concludes the poem with the line doubly emphasized, “I too am America.” In the word too there is a remarkably forceful assertion of the poet’s own identity as a Black American. He regurgitates his own agony, his wrath for mindless and deliberate inequality, his fretting for the feeling of an “other”, his deprivation of his birthright to be called as a true American. Instead he has to bear the label, willingly or unwillingly, “Black American.” Has color anything to do with identity? This question has been pertinently raised by Richard Barksdale in his book Langston Hughes :The Poet and his Critics .
As the poet emphasized his identity by saying “I too am America”, he throws innuendos to the people of America, especially the Whites, by and large. Are they so open hearted to adore the Black who share the same land, the same sky, the same air with them? When the Black raises his voice in protest[as seen during Harlem Renaissance], can he gag it? When the ‘company comes’ and admires the Apollo-like beauty of the Black American does he not feel ashamed within for such heinous, abominable, mindless discrimination? He does, and that is why the Black dares declare that “he too is America.”
Langston Hughes while spearheading the movement always inspired the Black Americans by saying that equality has to be the watchword in all nations. In America the seed of apartheid was being sown way back in the early years of the twentieth century. In I, Too, Hughes preaches this view vehemently, not with full-throated ease but with decisive celebration of its necessity. In the two subsequent stanzas where contrasting views are presented, elevate the short poem to a new height. In the one, there is a mute acceptance of humiliation only to retaliate it on equal terms immediately after. And in the next, there is a presentation of the expected truth where the poet feels imaginary satisfaction. At least, he feels that on that imagined tomorrow, none will dare chuck him out of the room to the kitchen and make him eat there. Because, he had garnered enough strength to be appreciated by them. Surprisingly, after being appreciated by the Whites, the darker brother feels that he too is America.
In easy diction, in heartfelt phrases, in short compass, the poem I,Too has much to offer to raise all the hairs on their ends, to give a new direction to a protest-movement. The poem shows that there is no hard and fast rule that a poem has to employ onomatopoeic effects or heavy words with ambiguous meanings to bring out the best of a poet. Hughes has proved that a flame burning in the soul is enough to give birth to a brilliant poem. Hughes proves that a suffering or tortured soul can use its own language of simple feelings to create a poem. Feels Harold Bloom, “Hughes has proved that a good poem may emerge from the blood and toil of a human being. In I, Too the line ‘Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am /And they’ll be ashamed’ speaks of his self-confidence and the strong belief of emerging successful in the movement.”[1989, p-58]
However, Hughes never believed that Equality would come holding the hands of Justice. In the poem titled Justice, Hughes said, “That Justice is a blind goddess/Is a thing to which we black are wise/Her bandage hides two festering sores/That once perhaps were eyes.” Frustration, sarcasm, disgust –all come ringing through these lines. But , if we juxtapose these lines with the lines from I ,Too : “ Tomorrow/I’ll be at the table/ When company comes/ Nobody’ll dare /Say to me,/ ‘Eat in the kitchen’/Then…..I too am America.” Is it not enough to prove that equality has to be snatched by right, it is not to be meted out by the blindfolded Justice?? However, I, Too is a signature-poem of Langston Hughes, without an iota of misgivings.
1.Barksdale, Richard: Langston Hughes: The poet and His Critics ,Chicago, 1998.
2.Bloom ,Harold ed: Langston Hughes, Chelsea , New York, 1989.
3.Miller, R. Baxter: The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 1989.