Langston Hughes wrote the poem, “I, Too” in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of Black American history which brought to light unique views of the world through the eyes of a people who were often subjugated and downtrodden. Issues of racial prejudice were prevalent during the Harlem Renaissance and segregation a fact of life. In the poem, “I,Too,” Hughes brings attention to this subjugation by portraying the life of a black male servant.
He puts forth his views of the treatment other people of his race have long had to endure through the masterful use of symbolism, irony and simple diction. There are many examples of symbolism in the poem, “I, Too”. America is used as a symbol to portray the concepts of equality, diversity, and perseverance. By reminding readers that the country allowed and condoned segregation of his race, Hughes points out that although this was a form subjugation, it could be overcome.
Even though America was at fault, the country still provided opportunities for those who would dare to try harder, to grow stronger, to push past the embarrassment of being labeled differently. America could still hold hope for people of any race. As well, the use of the word “I” in both the poem’s title and throughout the verses, is a symbol. Hughes uses himself as the quintessential example of his Black American heritage in a way that provokes the reader to think about he, and his race, are perceived.
In using the title, “I, Too”, Langston Hughes portrays himself as yet another symbol of a portion of the American population. Repetitive use of the word “they” refers to his employers, who are presumably White, and therefore symbolize the rest of American society (Hughes, in Madden, page #). Their treatment of him, such as making him eat in the kitchen, becomes the representation of the way Black Americans, in general, are treated. By using these personal terms, Hughes has managed to employ symbolism in a way that also connects him to others.
Hughes also states “I, too, sing America” and here he is using irony, as such a thing is not really possible. The irony is that he praises America and its values while at the same time drawing attention to the way he is seen as somehow inferior to others because of the color of his skin. The ending lines, which include the phrase “they’ll…be ashamed” are also ironic (Hughes, in Madden, page #). The poem was written to highlight the fact that Black Americans have been treated as something to be ashamed of and Hughes denounces this fact, creating irony by stating the obvious.
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This use of irony portrays Hughes’ condemnation of certain aspects of society. The easy diction of the poem belies its deeper meaning. Through the use of simple vocabulary and rather unusual syntax, Hughes delivers a powerful message in a manner that even a casual reader can understand. Short phrases easily roll of the tongue while breaking some of them up into odd lines makes the reader think about their meaning in a different, but directed, way.
By adding breaks between such passages as “tomorrow” and “I’ll be at the table”, Hughes creatively draws attention to the fact that he, and his race, will be stronger, and richer, and more respected when the White people of America least expect it (Hughes, in Madden, page #). In this way, too, does Hughes bring the tense of the poem from present to future. Hughes is adept at using diction to define the tone and deepen the understanding of underlying themes in his poetry. Langston Hughes’ reputation as an important poet and author was based on works such as “I, Too” which state a profound issue in simple terms.
By analyzing the usage of symbolism, irony, and the diction Hughes employs, the more important, underlying, concepts come to light. Hughes does this by reiterating the fundamental pride and love he retains for the country of America while subtly pointing out the way Black Americans are treated as hypocritical and unfair. America is a land founded on freedoms, and equality, diversity, and perseverance are the qualities which will allow all citizens, regardless of skin color, to reach their goals and realize their dreams.