Claims to Equality: Langston Hughes’ Utilization of the Word “I”
The black man has struggled for a long time to be considered equal to the white man. Being called “African American”, and being given the same rights as other ethnicities in America, is the legitimization of his claim to his American heritage. “I, Too” and “Theme for English B” are some of the poems written by Langston Hughes, an African American poet and writer who is interested in putting a higher stake on the claim by creating poetry which boosts the place of the black man in literature. “I, Too” and “Theme for English B” proclaim the equality of the black man to the white man, but while “I, Too” sounds like one man conversing with anyone, “Theme for English B” is addressing the white man directly, in the person of the professor.
“I, Too” may seem like one side of a conversation, but the determination to be recognized as an equal is not any weaker. There is a quiet confidence in the narrator when he says “Besides/ they’ll see how beautiful I am/ and be ashamed– /I, too, am America” (Hughes, I. Too lines 15-18). The “besides” at the beginning of the stanza makes it conversational and relaxed. In the first stanza, the narrator says “but I laugh/and eat well/and grow strong (Hughes, I. Too lines 5-7)” in response to the segregation that black people are suffering. Though the poem may sound relaxed, the “treatment” is “not casual” because it “speaks of the oppression of the black people and relates to any oppressed group in America” (Mitchell and Henderson 28).
Though the laugh that the narrator uses to respond to adversities seems to be too carefree on his part, he is not without a plan. After all, he talks about getting stronger. The fight to equality here is not loud, but quieter and more planned. It can be as serious as an underground plan for a protest or as simple as improving oneself in order to show that black people are equal to any other race. The poem itself is testament to that quiet move to prove equality. Hughes uses the “I” in his poem not to limit the poem or to become “introspective”, but like Anglo-American poet, Walt Whitman, to expand.
“Theme for English B” is a more direct claim to equality, made possible through the narrator’s letter to his white professor. It is a man’s claim to his inheritance, despite being considered by others as unworthy of it because he does not have the expected qualities of an heir. “Theme for English B” is said “to explode the notion of a racially pure self despite the white writing instructor’s insistence on it in the text’s opening exhortation” (Jarraway 833). The first stanza is the writing instructor’s assignment: “Go home and write/ a page tonight./ And let that page come out of you—/ Then, it will be true” (Hughes, Theme for English B lines 1-4).
The rest of the poem is the response of the narrator, who believes that since he is young and the only black student in his university, his ideas may be considered unlike those of his professor’s and his classmates’; the ideas, after all, come from a different background. However, he still believes that no matter how different he is to his writing instructor, they are the same – equal: “But it will be/ a part of you, instructor. / You are white—/ yet a part of me, as I am a part of you./ That’s American./ 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!” (Hughes, Theme for English B lines 28-35) Equality is not limited to being alike because no matter how their colors are different, the professor and the narrator are both Americans, and of course, both human. The poem is about equality in America, but it can well be equality in the world with the narrator declaring himself as a human being with human traits and rights.
The two poems from Langston Hughes’ collection of poetry, which speaks about how black people live, struggle and celebrate, are similar in their objective to describe a narrator that moves forward in his goal of being recognized as an equal. Though Hughes makes use of the “I” in the wider sense of the word, his writings are also very autobiographical in the sense that his narrators reveal his own views on the state of black America. What makes his poetry wider and less introspective is the importance of the topics themselves, and their effects on many people and to societal change.
The two narrators’ uses of “I” differ in energy and mood. The narrator in “I, Too” claims equality but has a more passive role in the quest for that recognition. Nevertheless, he has a positive attitude and does not let discrimination destroy him; instead, he strives to be stronger in order to prove himself equal. On the other hand, the narrator in “Theme for English B” uses “I” in relation to “you”, the other, the white man. He uses the two pronouns to emphasize the similarity underneath the surface. Instead of staying put and reacting towards discrimination and segregation, he actively confronts the professor who represents white people.
Langston Hughes’ has effectively used “I” to strongly claim the black man’s rights in America. In the two poems “I, Too” and “Theme for English B,” he shows that no matter how the black man declares his equality, be it passive or active, he is undoubtedly equal to any other man from any other race despite outward differences.
Hughes, Langston. “I. Too.” n.d.
Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” n.d.
Jarraway, David R. “Montage of an Otherness Deferred: Dreaming Subjectivity in Langston Hughes.”
American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 4 (December 1996): 819-847.
Mitchell, Arlene Harris and Darwin L. Henderson. “Black Poetry: Versatility of Voice.” The English
Journal, Vol. 79, No. 4 (April 1990): 23-28.