1926 or 2019? The Fight for Equality in “I, Too” foreshadows The Black Lives Movement

History frequently repeats itself, oftentimes foreshadowing the future through works of literature such as poems. The issues that poets write about decades ago reform into present day issues, connecting the past and modern issues. Langston Hughes, an African-American author and poet fits this framework by being a top Black literary figure whose upbringing and scholarly works composes of the African American struggles and experiences in America, parallel to today’s Black Lives Matter Movement: a fight for African American’s lives and equality. Hughes’ poem, “I, Too” was originally featured in the collection The Weary Blues in 1926, and has since been included in top magazines and newspapers such as New York Times and the Smithsonian (Knopf 1926).

                

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri but would grow up to be a big part of the Harlem Renaissance (African American Artistic movement) in 1920s New York City, shaping, “American literature and politics,” through celebrating and promoting black pride (Britannica 1-2). Hughes attended Columbia University before attending and graduating from Lincoln University in 1929 (Britannica 1). In congruence with Hughes’s personal history and identity, acknowledging it attests to the emotions and prideful tones for Black identity and equality showcased in the poem.

Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” is a rather short, free verse poem of five stanzas, opening and closing with similar one-line sentence, and using simple language throughout. The poem is only five sentences in total, but covers two events (today and tomorrow), and two places, (kitchen and table). The poem depicts the relationship between a presumed but not named authority figure and the narrator. The narrator alludes to racism towards blacks within the oppressive dominant white culture of America through their own experience of getting excluded (Hughes, “I am the darker brother/They send me to eat in the kitchen/When company comes”) while the company eats together at the table (2-4). More powerfully, the events of the poem derive from and captivate the rancorous history of slavery and oppression that created everlasting systems of racial inequality and denied blacks their right. This history is recounted in both The African AmericanGreat Migration and Beyond (2003) and Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2001). As a Black male growing up America in the 1900s, Hughes’ writing reflects the racial divide and discrimination, particularly to minorities, that has cycled through generations. When the poem emerged in 1926, the Great Migration was ongoing, it was “the (high rate relocation of African-Americans from Southern states to the North” (Stewart 209-232). The Chicago race riots (the lynching of blacks) was also occurring, along with Jim Crow (state and local laws that legally separated the South), that painted the racially divided climate of the US (Emerson and Smith 42).            

In the poem, the speaker metaphorically tells his desire to be included at the “table” also represents his desire to be included in American patriotism as represented by the words, “I, Too.” The poem uses an exemplary event of the unfair treatment of a person because of their darker skin complexion to comment on the racial divide then transitions to an optimistic perspective where he demands equality and acceptance. Hughes’ uses figurative language, commas, tone shift, and vagueness in setting to articulate black inequality and provides a prideful and positive future perspective of their place in America by appealing to pathos and unification.

Hughes’ poem frames what I have referenced as the 21st century representation or reforming of his poem, the Black Lives Matter Movement which generates a similar articulation of black inequality and argues for unification of America. “I, Too” shows the complexities in the changing of times but the continuance of racial inequalities and tensions for blacks in America. The poem in conjunction to what I am talking about reveals the change in times in America but the continuing racial inequalities and need for the BLM. Hughes uses the speaker of the poem to reveal the unfair treatment and exclusion of a person based on skin color like seen in the mass killings of blacks by police leading to the creation of the BLM to stand against that. Hughes’ poem in combination with the BLM is important in analyzing the history of discrimination and unfair treatment of blacks, as well as establishing a black prideful forward-looking perspective that I will address.

Hughes utilizes commas to showcase the changing narrative of the speaker and to separate his changing experiences and emotions. Hughes Writes, ““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, Too” 2-7). The use of commas in this quote forces the reader to slow down and take in the actions of the narrator. The commas show the continuation of the unfair treatment because the commas combined with the word “grow strong” shows the longevity and multiplicity of times he had to eat in the kitchen because he is “the darker brother.” The commas also allow for the tone shift through the lines as well as stanzas of the poem. The tone shifts from one of anger to one of strength using the commas because the commas allows for the poem to be read like blues music, filled with sorrow and anger, but finding the beauty by finding its worth like the narrator does connecting back to Hughes’ use of blues and jazz club settings to write during the Harlem Renaissance. Commas produce this effect because it showcases the narrator’s growth and emotions. The commas allow us to get a whole picture view of the changes the narrator goes through after being banished to the kitchen such as the, “But I laugh,” that is followed by the, “And eat well,” then him saying, “And grow strong.” He is not allowing for his banishment to the kitchen to keep him down, but rather laughs and thinks of the future when he is stronger and can escape the segregation that has been forced on him.

 

The commas also produce a contrast between not being able to eat at the table juxtaposed to his claim of his, “tomorrow(‘s)” right to eat at that table. His perseverance and resilience in self authorizing that he will be at the table comes through because of the use of commas showing that he is not accepting his current situation. Agency, not accepting one’s unfair current situation, a message that Hughes promotes as black pride clashes, the picturistic America (land of freedom and opportunity), with the unmatched reality when we look further in. Through sources of literature, this unmatched dream of a racially equal America is exposed and investigated. This shows through the authority to speaker power dynamic as seen in the poem. One source that adds to the conversation is an NPR tribute by Neal Conan to Langston Hughes titled, “Celebrating the Legacy of Langston Hughes.” Published in February of 2012, Conan praises Hughes and his work as being a significant impact by giving a voice to blacks and black bodies in the 20th century that have historically been dehumanized. Conan’s promotes Hughes as a figure to be respected and praised because he created a foundation for black voices to be recognized and identified, as is done by the “I, Too” poem.

Nevertheless, he acknowledges the present-day ongoing racism on a micro and macro level, posing the question, “what should we teach about Langston Hughs in schools today?” (4). Conan amplifies the need for the presence of Hughes’ works in schools today, stating that, “it is a gateway in understanding black suffrage and black’s fight for equality” (5). Conan also recognizes the significance of Hughes as setting the stage for comprehending black identity and developing black pride in his works which allows for the canon of what is taught in schools to be expanded. Conan marks Hughes as setting a general framework for, “the importance and lasting foundational structure of black identity and black’s wanting freedom in a land where they were held captive and still are” (14). The Black Lives Movement acts as another agent and framework for understanding why there is a critical need for present-day foundations and organizations that protect and uphold black equality and freedom in a country who history has opposed it.

Through the Smithsonian Article titled, “Why Langston Hughes Still Reigns as a Poet for the Unchampioned,” published in May of 2017, author David Ward continues the praise of Langston Hughes by recognizing his contributions and achievements both in academia and society, painting Hughes as a “canonical figure in American culture” (1). Ward says that, “Hughes bridges the gap between cultures through his poems that connects to today’s multicultural society that lacks those bridges of culture and still uses Hughes’ work as a voice for continuing the building of cultural bridges” (8). This is done through first recognizing Hughes as inspirational and groundbreaking African-American author and figure for American culture and the American dream from a realistic viewpoint of blacks (2). Ward identifies the governments creation of systemic racism and its structures as a way of creating the unmatched dream of a racially equal society. Hughes growing up in the 1900s aligns with that even closer because the racial divide and legal separation of people was occurring which highly influenced his work. This correlates with the dreams of inclusion and equality of the speaker in the poem juxtapose with his “today.” His “tomorrow” and positive forward-looking dream by Hughes contrasts with the reality of racial systems put in place to keep him excluded.

Throughout the poem, Hughes employs the vagueness of setting to note the deep-rooted effects of slavery and the continuing holds it has on black equality. The vagueness in the setting acts as a metaphor for the ongoing oppression of blacks. The speaker uses the words “tomorrow” in the poem to contrast his current situation with his desired future. He says, “Tomorrow/I’ll be at the table/When company comes. /Nobody’ll dare/Say to me, / “Eat in the kitchen,”/Then” (I, Too” 8-14). Here Hughes’ using the word “tomorrow” is vague because it means the day after today, but it can also allude to the future in the sense of days, months, or even years. The word also acts as a metaphor for the oppression of blacks and the unfair treatment they face because it puts an uncertain time clock on their suffering. “Tomorrow,” acts a sense of hope for better days but is not marked with an exact date. Rather, it is the endless hope that things will get better than they are presently, even if that day isn’t certain.This is important because it showcases how whether it takes place during slavery or post-slavery, the remaining effects of oppression and unequal treatment of blacks is still present and draining in the American society. Paralleling with the vagueness in time, the events we see such as the killings of unarmed black males in the 21st century as covered in CNN’s article Family of Stephon Clark, unarmed black man killed by police, files wrongful death lawsuit published 2019 by Sonya Hamasaki and Dan Simon shows the continual effects of racial inequality systems from slavery. It shows how the African-American experience is still one of unfairness and inequality prior or post slavery and why the BLM is critically important in the fight against it.

    

Moving on, the narrator claims his liberation and argues for unification at the table through his hope of “tomorrow” as a brighter future juxtapose with the present. Hughes writes, “Besides, /They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed—/I, too, am America” (I, Too” 15-18). He is claiming his right to feel included and equal as a citizen in America. He is disapproving the idea that equality is based on race, or more specifically that you must be white or of a lighter skin complexion to be fairly treated. This topic is important to me because America is often seen as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, nationalities, and races, yet the country is racially fragmented, unequal in income and opportunity, and the viral killings of minorities at an unproportioned rate to whites shows that the ‘melting pot’ image is juxtaposed with the reality of oppressed identities in America. However, the black identity has always been present and is still fighting to be acknowledged in America’s multicultural society ran by white privilege.

 

This situation in the poem aligns with the oppressive history of domination from the white culture onto the black culture. Furthermore, it speaks in a hopeful tone despite the vagueness of setting to promise a brighter or equal “tomorrow.” This is congruent to the message that is delivered by Hughes in his speech at UCLA in 1967. The YouTube video from the UCLA Communication Studies Archives is of Langston Hughes’ speech at UCLA on the 2nd of February in 1967, a few months before he passed which presents and support the arguments of both Conan and Ward that will come up latter correlating with Hughes own words. However, it diverges by speaking more intensely on the social implications of identities and races and function of education as a tool for growth and change in America. The speaker approaches the history of discrimination through his motto, “dig and be dug in return,” as a framework for displaying the need for 20th century graduates to be aware of different identities as well as how they are represented and treated in society (Archives 45). Hughes acknowledges and praises the abilities of the Negros capabilities to achieve equal to other races and be even greater.  Hughes notes college and education as tools for growth in awareness levels and social consciousness of American students, stating it will be a catalyst for the understanding of identities and races in America which diverges from our abusive and discriminatory history towards minorities (58). This claim that he makes is highly important in explaining the development of the Black Lives Matter Movement which was established by highly educated black members and organizations in the African-American community which parallels with Hughes claim that education is a tool for social consciousness and awareness in America that this movement is trying to activate.

Just as the vagueness of the setting of time was established by the word “tomorrow” in the poem, the tomorrow that was being referred to is now enlightened by Hughes’ speech at UCLA. The near future but uncertain timeline of the “tomorrow” that the speaker of the poem hinges on to upkeep a hopeful tone and outlook on the future is like the hopeful tone and outlook that Hughes desires for America. Hughes looks at college or more generally education as a tool for establishing a brighter future for African-Americans that will bring them from the exclusion of the kitchen to the table. The tomorrow spoken about in the poem is played out in forty-two years after the poem is published at Hughes speech in 1967. This connects back to the vagueness of setting that the poem elicits because despite how hopeful and strong the speaker of the poem is in his declaration of an equal tomorrow where he says, “tomorrow I’ll be at the table when company comes,” the timeline of exactly when it actually happens is uncertain. Furthermore, the speaker goes on to say, “Besides, /they’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed—/ I, too, am America.” This is critically important because it connects back to the rising of awareness and consciousness of America that Hughes speaks on in his speech through using education as a tool.

This is again played out in 1925 in his poem and also in 2019 because the multitude of endorsing organizations for the BLM such as such as the Center for Social Inclusion, Southeast Asian Freedom Network, Jewish Voice of Peace, articulate the rising awareness and consciousness of America and more show the diversity and inclusion of all as equal Americans. It shows the removing of exclusions that the speaker faces in the poems transitioned to an enlightened state where diverse groups are willing to join for a movement to stand for equal citizenship in America redirecting from its racially oppressive and shameful history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited 

Knopf. “Selected Letters of Langston Hughes & The Weary Blues.” Knopf Doubleday, 1926, knopfdoubleday.com/2015/02/03/the-selected-letters-of-langstonhughes-and-the-weary-blues/. 

Hughes, Langston. “I, Too by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 1926, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47558/i-too. 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Langston Hughes.” Encyclopædia BritannicaEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Langston-Hughes. 

Tolnay, Stewart (2003). “The African American ‘Great Migration’ and Beyond“. Annual Review of Sociology29: 209–232. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100009JSTOR 30036966. 

Michael O. Emerson, Christian Smith (2001). “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America“. p. 42. Oxford University Press. 

Pilgrim, David. “Slavery in America.” Slavery in America – Timeline – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University, 2012, www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/timeline/slavery.htm. 

Conan, Neal. “Celebrating The Legacy Of Langston Hughes.” NPR, NPR, 2 Feb. 2012, www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=146297228. Accessed 10 Mar. 2019. 

Ward, David C. “Why Langston Hughes Still Reigns as a Poet for the Unchampioned.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 22 May 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-langston-hughes-still-reigns-poet-unchampioned-180963405/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2019. 

UCLACommStudies. “Langston Hughes Speaking at UCLA 2/16/1967.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Dec. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Px5hwNCs9ss. Accessed 10 Mar. 2019. 

Hamasaki, Sonya, and Dan Simon. “Family of Stephon Clark Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 Jan. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/01/29/us/stephon-clark-wrongful-death-lawsuit/index.html. 

“Malcolm X Quotes.” BrainyQuote.com. BrainyMedia Inc, 2019. 19 April 2019. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/malcolm_x_387554 

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