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. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/compare-contrast-langston-hughes/>.
In "I, Too," Langston Hughes is obviously in conversation with the earlier poem, Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing." Both poems explore the idea of American identity -- who and what is an American? What characterizes the people of this nation? The two poets, however, reach somewhat different conclusions in response to these questions.
Whitman is known as the quintessential American poet, in part due to poems like this one. Whitman's "Song of Myself" positions the individual at the center, and the individual (at least Whitman as the individual) is a multi-faceted, inclusive being. In "I Hear America Singing," Whitman refers to "the varied carols" of different workers ("mechanics" ), "the carpenter" , " the mason" , "the boatman" and "the deckman" , "the shoemaker" and "the hatter" , "the wood-cutter" and "the ploughboy" ). Whitman includes workers of both genders, listing "the mother," "the young wife at work," and "the girl sewing or washing" in line 8. These Americans at work are "singing what belongs to him or her and to none else," according to line 9. Whitman identifies each person with his or her task; the work is what defines the person here. He then briefly mentions "the party of young fellows" at night, presumably after work, who also sing "strong melodious songs" (11-12). Whitman's various examples seem to be meant to cover many professions and both genders. The lines of Whitman's poem are long and full of descriptive detail. There is no rhyme scheme or attempt to break lines into stanzas. The poem flows freely, a stylistic reflection of Whitman's central theme -- the freedom of the individual.
Hughes's "I,Too," however, seeks to point out at least one blind spot in Whitman's ideal vision of America. Hughes begins by saying, "I, too, sing America," which is an immediately recognizable allusion to Whitman's poem and also implies that Whitman did not speak for Hughes. As Hughes's poem progresses, the speaker describes himself as "the darker brother" (2). Here, in claiming a voice for "the darker brother," Hughes suggests that this segment of the American population was not covered in Whitman's vision. Hughes's speaker does not believe he was spoken for in "I Hear America Singing" and must now speak up for himself. The speaker refers to being sent "to eat in the kitchen," a form of racial segregation. Despite the shame implicit in such an order, Hughes's speaker sees his time in the kitchen as a time to prepare ("I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong" [5-7]) for "Tomorrow" (8). Hughes's speaker recognizes his current oppression but intends to overcome it in the future. He envisions not the present, as Whitman does, but a better future, one in which "Nobody'll dare/ Say to me, 'Eat in the kitchen,'" (11-13). The speaker further argues that it is not he who will be ashamed but those who oppressed him, once they "see how beautiful [he is]" (16). In the final line of the poem, Hughes revises slightly the phrasing of the opening line: "I, too, am America" (18). This simple change of verb, from "sing" to "am" expands Hughes's vision to a more inclusive one, one that more strongly asserts his identity as an American. Stylistically, Hughes's poem is strikingly different than Whitman's. The lines are short and are read in a staccato style. There are more stops and starts, and the rhythm is more abrupt (not free-flowing like Whitman's). Hughes's speaker's vision is, perhaps, as ambitious as Whitman's, but he is more realistic and he makes his point with fewer words. This choice reflects the content of the poem in the sense that the speaker, in the present at least, is not permitted the freedom to speak, to sing, or to be in the way that Whitman's speaker is.
While both poems meditate on the American identity, different historical contexts and different facets of identity (namely, race) result in different ideas about who is an American. Whitman's vision is broad, and Hughes's is more specific; Hughes's poem suggests, though, that even in its broadness, Whitman's vision is limited.