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The Harlem Renaissance and the Voice of Langston Hughes
Exploring 'I, Too' in its Historical Context
It is July 4, 2023, a day that many Black people have mixed feelings about because while many celebrate America’s Independence, many Black people reflect on the fact that many of our ancestors were still enslaved in 1776. Just think,
By 1775, more than a half million enslaved Africans lived in the 13 colonies.
The Declaration of Independence promised liberty for “all men” but failed to end slavery.
Under the law, an enslaved person was treated as property.
During the 1780s, thoughts around the Three-fifths Compromise developed and were added to the Constitution (the 1780s).
Therefore, this morning I chose to read a Langston Hughes poem with my family and then write a reflection about the poem “I, Too.”
Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too” was first published in 1926 in his collection of poetry titled “The Weary Blues.”
The poem reads this way,
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.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
The collection marked Hughes’s debut as a published poet, showcasing his unique voice and perspective as a Black writer during the Harlem Renaissance.
This poem encapsulates a specific period in the early 20th century when Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the Southern States. It presents a compelling argument against those who undermine the significance of this historical context and the Black presence within it.
Within its concise 18 lines, the poem skillfully weaves multiple themes that explore the intricate dynamics between Black people and a society dominated by white supremacy.
Langston Hughes demonstrates his understanding of this relationship’s complex and often painful nature through this work and brilliantly proclaims black people have worth in America.
Line 1: “I, too, sing America.” Hughes proclaims his right to acknowledge that he, too, lives on American soil and speaks about his identity as a Black poet.
Line 2: “I am the darker brother.” Hughes acknowledges that on American soil, his racial identity is often overlooked and that he is overlooked because those who hold white supremacy don’t see him as equal.
Lines 3-6: “They send me to eat in the kitchen/ When company comes,/ But I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong.” Hughes describes the segregation, marginalization, and mistreatment he experiences and sees among those who are also, as he states metaphorically, for all Black people experiencing racism, “the darker brother.” He says we were sent to the kitchen during social gatherings and viewed in the context of help or being seen as not worthy enough to sit at the table and be seen. However, Hughes says he and Black people respond with resilience, finding joy, nourishment, and personal growth despite the oppressive circumstances.
Lines 7-8: “Tomorrow,/I’ll be at the table/ When company comes.” Hughes envisions a future where Black people will no longer be confined to the kitchen but will sit at the table, symbolizing equality, equity, justice, and inclusion.
Lines 9-12: “Nobody’ll dare/ Say to me,/‘Eat in the kitchen,’/ Then.” Hughes asserts his confidence, suggesting that no one will have the audacity to segregate and marginalize Black people in the future. He dreams about a future of liberation reflecting our ancestors who fought through enslavement and now Jim Crow.
Lines 13-14: “Besides,/They’ll see how beautiful I am/ And be ashamed—” Hughes emphasizes his beauty and dignity, as well as all Black people’s dignity, believing that his presence and Black people’s presence will challenge and shame those who previously disregarded and oppressed him.
Lines 15-18: “I, too, am America.” The poem concludes with Hughes asserting his rightful place as an integral part of America, even though America hasn’t been good to Black people, reinforcing his identity as a Black person and demanding recognition.
We need to teach all of history because when we teach the whole history, we empower people who that history has impacted and inform others who are not affected by that history.
Before Juneteenth, on July 5, 1852,
Frederick Douglass gave the speech on the fifth because he refused to celebrate the Fourth of July while slavery remained the law of the land. When Douglass gave the address, three million people were enslaved in the United States. The numbers continued to grow because of the internal slave trade. He said these words,
"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
Although some celebrate our country's independence, many persons of color remember and mourn the long journey to freedom.
During the early 20th century, Black people in the United States faced racial discrimination, segregation, and systemic oppression. Despite this, Langston Hughes reclaimed his voice and exclaimed to other Black people the same by stating loudly, “I, Too” am America.
If you want to explore homelessness in the U.S., please consider checking out the book“I See You: How Love Opens Our Eyes to Invisible People.”
Explore my book “When We Stand: The Power of Seeking Justice Together” to delve into the profound impact of community involvement and collective action for social change.
Discover “All God’s Children: How Confronting Buried History Can Build Racial Solidarity” to gain insight into the significance of understanding the historical narratives that shape individuals and foster racial solidarity.
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Declaration of Independence, announcing the colonies’ separation from Great Britain.
The Harlem Renaissance was a significant cultural and intellectual movement in the 1920s and 1930s, primarily centered in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Also known as the “New Negro Movement,” it marked a period of flourishing artistic expression, literary achievements, music, theater, and visual arts within the African American community.