by Langston Hughes
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.
In this poem, first published in 1926 during the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes portrays racism in America through the perspective of a black man (“a darker brother.”) It is important to note that use of the word “brother” as it is a claim of familial ties to *all* Americans. He is asserting a belonging.
He starts the poem by stating that he sings America. The statement serves to remind those who might not consider him under the American umbrella to expand their view of America. The fact that Hughes “sings” America denotes a positive view, or alternatively, a claim of ownership. The metaphor used by Hughes in the poem is that of a dinner party. The Speaker is denied – both literally and figuratively – a place at the American table in the first stanza. He remains in America’s house, benefitting from America’s kitchen, but is denied the dignity – the acknowledgment of kinship – of a place at the table. Though denied in this way, the Speaker still describes his time in the kitchen as one where he laughs, eats well, and grows strong.
The subject matter of the poem is racial segregation in America. The Speaker – one of the segregated – presents an optimistic (and maybe defiant) tone regarding the future in the second stanza. Black Americans will eat at the table tomorrow. He presents this as simple fact. He says no one will even dare to say no. But Hughes sees something better than simply forcing a path to the table. He says that those who denied him a place, before, will see beauty and value in him. Upon seeing and acknowledging his beauty, then shame will set in for those that sent him away previously.
The last line is similar to the first. The Speaker is not just a part of America. He does not merely sing it. He *is* America. He is not claiming that the metaphorical table is exclusively his own, though, but rather he is claiming his membership in the American family and a place at the family’s table.
Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901 – May 22, 1967) was an important figure in American history. He was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He famously wrote about the period that “the Negro was in vogue”, which was later paraphrased as “when Harlem was in vogue.”
Growing up in a series of Midwestern towns, Hughes became a prolific writer at an early age. He moved to New York City as a young man, where he made his career. He graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio and soon began studies at Columbia University in New York City. Although he dropped out, he gained notice from New York publishers, first in The Crisis magazine, and then from book publishers and became known in the creative community in Harlem. He eventually graduated from Lincoln University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, and short stories. He also published several non-fiction works. From 1942 to 1962, as the civil rights movement was gaining traction, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.