Just those two words say so much. What, to you, do these two words mean?
Maybe: “Don’t forget about me.” It feels declarative, like “I’m here!” It implies that the person feels left out, not included, and is asserting their presence. “I” is such a powerful word: One sound that means me, my voice, I exist. I, Too feels proud, decisive, confident — asserting presence, not asking to be noticed. This person is here, whether acknowledged or not.
“I, too, sing America.” Walt Whitman has many poems about “America singing” or singing of himself. Hughes wrote poems about Whitman, so I am sure he was an influence. I think this poem is an echo or answer to Whitman, who was considered a great American poet, one who defined what early America was through his poetry. This poet, Langston Hughes, says, “I, too, sing America.” My voice is here, too, and can add to the definition of what America is.
See more introduction to this poem & its connection to writer Julia Alvarez here.
Read the Poem
As always, begin by reading the poem — a few times out loud if possible.
Who is the Speaker?
This voice, saying, “I, Too”: Who is he? What phrases tell you about him? Pick out a few moments in the poem where you see most clearly who this speaker is.
Here are some of mine:
He’s “the darker brother.” He’s sent to the kitchen, away from company (people visiting the house). But how does he feel when sent away?: He laughs, eats well, grows strong. He does not hide away in shame. He enjoys himself, enjoys food, grows — feeds himself emotionally as well. This is someone who knows he belongs, even though he’s told he doesn’t. It’s reminicient of slavery and also the culture of servanthood and inequality that still existed when this poem was written (and still exists now in a variety of ways).
This speaker doesn’t feel shame. In fact, he says they will be ashamed — the people who ask him to leave — when they see how beautiful he is. Again, he is not waiting for someone to tell him he’s beautiful; he knows it. It’s their problem that they can’t see it.
How a Poem’s Form Communicates
Go back to the poem and scan over the form. Look at each stanza (section). What is the movement of the poem — meaning — can you see how it’s organized, how it moves from beginning to end? Write or think about a few-word summary of what each stanza does. Note any words that signal a shift, a change. This can show you how the poem is moving.
Here are my notes:
First stanza: “I am” – the present
Second stanza: “Tomorrow” – We shift to the future. (The stanza ends with “then.” It’s a summary of what the situation in the future will be.)
Third stanza: “Besides” – an important comment to add – what will continue to happen in the future. They’ll realize…
Fourth stanza: One line – Declaring it again – I, too, sing America. It’s important that it’s one line — strong. Almost like — see — I proved my thesis. It’s another strong, one-line statement, ends with this confidence, assurance, assertion of the speaker’s presence and right to sing America, to be part of America.
So how does this form, the way the poem is organized, add to what the poem is saying?
What does the organization of the poem say? This shift from present to future and declaration?
To me it says This is the situation in the present — I eat well and grow strong. Tomorrow, the future is coming. The poem is filled with strong, declarative statements. The speaker is sure this will happen in the future — that he will be recognized as part of the hourse, not sent to the kitchen. And he’s sure they will be ashamed for not seeing his beauty. He declares he, too, belongs. So that movement from the present to the future, to me, is part of showing hope and also life, thriving now and growing into the future. The poem is not stuck in one moment, in dread or doubt, but moves — tomorrow, then. It’s forward-looking — and confident in the future vision.
See how a poem’s form can add to what it’s saying? This is a unique characteristic of poetry. The form communicates part of the meaning, just as gestures or facial expressions do in a conversation.
Poems Tell Us About Culture & Society
Now, let’s reflect. Overall, what does this poem tell you about America?
Who is included? Who isn’t included now? Who should be — or will be — included?
Who is he speaking to? How might different audiences read this poem?
To me, this poem shows an important aspect of the United States, a feeling that is surfacing now, again, in this moment in history. We have a dark history of slavery, racism, outright discrimination — people willfully, intentionally excluded from “the kitchen,” from the whole house of the country. The poem also reflects the great hope, the dream of America. That someday all will be included. That’s the ideal, the future when we will acheive equality, inclusion, celebrate the beauty and life, liberty, justice and pursuit of happiness for all. There will always be those who exclude; we continue to fall short of that ideal. Yet by envisioning that future, by declaring equal existence — I, Too, — maybe we can will that future, move closer to that promise. And what does that look like? Being equally “at the table,” and when no one would “dare” send you away. This poem gives a vision of that future that does inspire those who look around and see a present that doesn’t look so promising. It also shows those who would exclude that the speaker and his company are here, and one day they will see, too.
What do you see in this poem?
What is one new thing you learned or now appreciate more about poetry?
Thanks for reading! Here’s another poem by Langston Hughes: “Harlem.”
Here are some videos and a creative writing prompt on “Harlem.”
See the main lesson page for more lessons!