“I, Too”: Langston Hughes’s Afro-Whitmanian Affirmation

by Steven Tracy

Langston Hughes, 1942 (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)Whatever we say, whatever we write, whatever we do, we never act alone. Just as John Donne meditated upon the notion that “no man is an island,” so, too, in the twentieth century did T. S. Eliot demonstrate how the individual talent grew out of a tradition that created, nurtured, and contextualized its ideas. In 1919, the same year in which Eliot published his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Langston Hughes published two poems in the January issue of his Cleveland high school’s literary journal. One of these poems was in the free verse style of Walt Whitman, whom Hughes revered throughout his life.

In “I Hear America Singing” (1867), an early version of which was published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass as number 20 of his “Chants Democratic,” Whitman—the bard, the seer, the hearer, the singer—celebrates the music that the young United States offered to an old world in need of the aesthetic, linguistic, and spiritual expansion and renewal that would come, in part, from American popular culture:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
         and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
    The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-
         hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing
         as he stands,
The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morn-
         ing, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
         or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day – at night the party of young
         fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

From the rousing marching songs of the Civil War to the wistful postwar “sorrow songs,” as W. E. B. Du Bois would later call them, the American tradition of “strong melodious songs” reached great heights in the 1860s and ’70s. The music of Whitman’s day—spirituals, secular songs, work songs, game songs, and the emergent style of ragtime—came to be known the world over as “American music,” and would have a powerful cultural impact on subsequent generations in the United States and beyond.

Out of Whitman’s generalized American nationalism grew Langston Hughes’s specifically Afro-nationalistic fervor. African Americans, who by the 1920s were dominating American music and dance through ragtime, which was slowly morphing and developing into jazz, began to have a significant presence in American literature as well. By June 1921, Hughes was writing that he spoke for and as “the Negro.” That year, in the journal Crisis, he demonstrated how African and African American aesthetics, the oral tradition, and the relation of the individual to the group drove his poetic ambition. In his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes speaks of the Negro, third person singular, as the Negro, first person singular, but clearly refers to the first-person-plural millions of souls who were linked together, sometimes literally, certainly figuratively, in their arts:

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
     and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Writing as the Negro, Hughes develops a voice, an aesthetic, a soul that speaks in, of, and out of time for humanity.

Adopting a somewhat more acidic tone, Hughes published the poem “I, Too” on March 1, 1925, in Survey Graphic. In this poem, Hughes clearly speaks for masses of marginalized African Americans. Yet it is a very personal poem as well. The “I” is not merely one person, but a collective vision (eye), two (too)—multiple generations of experience distilled into a multi-layered but personal melody:

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.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Hughes’s impulse is retrospective, looking back to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” He is also drawing upon centuries of the African American experience to enhance his art. Hughes does not simply hear America singing, he sings America. Hughes slightly but monumentally alters the final line to read “am” rather than “sing.” Singing is being, and African American singing, in its style and subject matter, matters, as it was mattering increasingly in American commercial, popular, and artistic culture. But mostly it mattered in the hearts, souls, and minds of Americans who had heard Whitman singing, who had heard the “varied carols” of America, and had gradually embraced the honesty, truth, and art of all Americans. In stripped, compressed, and succinct lines, and weary but pointedly admonitory tones, Hughes’s average Black American man sings—not for his supper, but out of his humanity.

Steven Tracy, Professor of Afro-American Studies at UMass Amherst, is the author of Langston Hughes and the Blues (1988) and served as general co-editor of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes (2001–2004).

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