Langston Hughes: Comparison and Contrasting Essay
by Feross Aboukhadijeh
Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of African-American literature and artistic forms in Manhattan during the 1920s. Not only did his writing promote African-American culture, but it sought to bring attention to the plight of the African-Americans suffering injustice and repression. His poems "I, Too" and "Theme for English B" both advanced his political views of equal civil rights and treatment under the law for African-Americans. Both poems use first-person voices; however the "I" is different for each poem, in order to fulfill Hughes' purpose for the poem.
In Hughes' poem "I, Too," the speaker is not an individual as the word "I" implies. In fact, the "I" represents the entirety of African-Americans living in the United States. That Hughes writes "I am the darker brother" instead of "we are the darker brothers" is no accident (2). The connotation of the word "I" as opposed to "we" is that of a lone individual, defenseless and outnumbered. The speaker says "They send me to eat in the kitchen," reinforcing the one-versus-all mentality that Hughes is trying to convey in this poem (3). "We" and "they," give a stronger, more united connotation than "I" does. In this poem, "I" is used to connote weakness, and isolation. As used in this poem, the first-person voice highlights the weakness of the African-American people. However, this is not the only way that Hughes uses "I" in his poetry.
On the other hand, Hughes' poem "Theme for English B," uses the first-person voice for an entirely different effect. In this poem, the "I" is an individual student. The poem is written like a narrative: "I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem" (7). Unlike the first poem, "I" is used here to connote strength and singularity. The speaker, an African-American student given an English writing assignment, engages his teacher in an intelligent, even pointed dialog. Hughes artistically makes use of the first-person point of view to enhance the effect of the story. By using words like "I" and "them", "me" and "you," the speaker is able to point out the differences between himself and his teacher. One passage in particular stands out for its incessant juxtaposition of the words "you" and "me":
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me— (31-38).
Not only does this highlight the differences between the speaker and teacher, but it puts the speaker in a commanding position. The fact that an African-American individual is writing something controversial, and making critical remarks of his teacher—and in such an eloquent way—is a sign of strength and source of pride.
Although these poems both make use of first-person voices, they each make use of voice to different ends. Nonetheless, both poems draw attention to the plight of the African-American people, albeit in different manners. Both poems cry out for civil rights and equality in a time where African-Americans were treated neither civilly nor equally.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Compare and Contrast Essay - "Langston Hughes"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/compare-contrast-langston-hughes/>.
The speaker claims that he, too, sings America. He is the “darker brother” who is sent to eat in the kitchen when there are guests visiting. However, he does laugh and he eats well and grows bigger and stronger. Tomorrow, he will sit at the table when the guests come, and no one will dare to tell him to eat in the kitchen. They will see his beauty and be ashamed, for, as he claims, “I, too, am America.”
The poem “I, Too” is also known as “I, Too, Sing America,” and was initially titled “Epilogue” when it appeared in The Weary Blues, the 1926 volume of Langston Hughes's poetry. It has been anthologized repeatedly and scholars have written about it many times. It is written in free verse and features short lines and simple language.
Hughes wrote "I, Too" from the perspective of an African American man - either a slave, a free man in the Jim Crow South, or even a domestic servant. The lack of a concrete identity or historical context does not mitigate the poem’s message; in fact, it confers on it a high degree of universality, for the situation Hughes describes in the poem reflects a common experience for many African Americans during his time.
The speaker begins by declaring that he too can “sing America,” meaning that he is claiming his right to feel patriotic towards America, even though he is the “darker” brother who cannot sit at the table and must eat in the kitchen. This alludes to the common practice of racial segregation during the early 20th century, when African Americans faced discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives. They were forced to live, work, eat and travel separately from their white counterparts, had few civil or legal rights, were often victims of racial violence, and faced economic marginalization in both the North and the South. One critic identifies the opening lines of the poem as illustrative of W.E.B. DuBois’s theory of “double-consciousness":
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The speaker does not languish in despair, however. He proclaims that "tomorrow" he will join the others at the table and no one will dare send him back to the kitchen. Not only that, but the "others" will see “how beautiful” the speaker is and will therefore feel ashamed. This statement is extremely hopeful and optimistic. The speaker demonstrates a heightened sense of self and proclaims his ambition to assert his legitimacy as a an American citizen and as a man.
The invocation of America is important, for Hughes is expressing his belief that African Americans are a valuable part of the country's population and that he foresees a racially equal society in the near future. Many critics believe that "I, Too" is an unofficial response to the great poet Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing.” This is likely given Hughes’s expressed affinity for Whitman's work, as well as the similarity between the titles and choice of words. In Whitman’s poem, a variety of Americans - including a mechanic, carpenter, boatman, and mother - sing joyfully about America. Hughes suggests that even though the circumstances are different for African Americans, they also deserve to experience patriotism.