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How Langston's Hughes' "I, Too, Sing America" speaks to the plight of black Americans post WWI

Poet Langston Hughes in 1936
Poet Langston Hughes in 1936
Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Van Vechten Collection

In honor of the scheduled opening of the new Civil Rights museum in downtown Greensboro, which highlights the Woolworth Sit-ins that happened at the same location, an analyses of a black American poet's work seems in order.

Langston Hughes was one of the most influential writer's of the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry garnered attention from white and black Americans alike. One of his most powerful poems, "I, Too, Sing America" explains how black men returning from WWI or preparing to serve in WWII may have felt.

Hughes begins his poem by stating bluntly "I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes."  This statement reminds the reader of the rights that blacks had not yet attained, even in the liberal North at the time. Black Americans were still sent to the kitchen to eat, or at restaurants they could order food from the back of the building, but not eat in the main dining room. But the speaker does not allow this to bother him for in the next lines he says, "But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong." This is the jovial attitude of the "Negro Soldier".

He is hopeful for the future in the next stanza, "Tomorrow, I'll sit at the table When company comes. Nobody'll dare Say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," Then." The use of "Nobody'll" as dialect and the general tone of spoken language in this sentence suggests it is a statement made aloud by the speaker, maybe to himself, maybe to the cook, maybe to a fellow soldier.

The last four lines are crucial to developing how the white community has not yet accepted the sacrifices of black soldiers. "Besides, They'll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed--I, too, am America." Hughes holds nothing back in these last lines as he makes the powerful statement that blacks in WWI, the first war since the Civil War, show their pride to be Americans and choose to enlist in the military for the first time.

This is such an influential piece because it commands that black soldiers are more than equal to white soldiers. In the former era, blacks were slaves, and not allowed to enlist. In the era of the poem, blacks are allowed, and instead of holding a grudge to their once masters, the stand up and make the statement that they, too, are Americans.

The copy of the poem referred to for this analyses can be found in Hazel Felleman's collection Poems That Live Forever.


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