In large graven letters on the wall of the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall is a quote from poet Langston Hughes: “I, too, am America.”
The line comes from the Hughes’s poem “I, too,” first published in 1926.
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.
From THE COLLECTED POEMS OF LANGSTON HUGHES. By permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated
The poem is a singularly significant affirmation of the museum’s mission to tell the history of United States through the lens of the African-American experience. It embodies that history at a particular point in the early 20th century when Jim Crow laws throughout the South enforced racial segregation; and argues against those who would deny that importance—and that presence.
Its mere 18 lines capture a series of intertwined themes about the relationship of African-Americans to the majority culture and society, themes that show Hughes’ recognition of the painful complexity of that relationship.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
There is a multi-dimensional pun in the title, “I, too” in the lines that open and close the poem. If you hear the word as the number two, it suddenly shifts the terrain to someone who is secondary, subordinate, even, inferior
Hughes powerfully speaks for the second-class, those excluded. The full-throated drama of the poem portrays African-Americans moving from out of sight, eating in the kitchen, and taking their place at the dining room table co-equal with the “company” that is dining.
Intriguingly, Langston doesn’t amplify on who owns the kitchen. The house, of course, is the United States and the owners of the house and the kitchen are never specified or seen because they cannot be embodied. Hughes’ sly wink is to the African-Americans who worked in the plantation houses as slaves and servants. He honors those who lived below stairs or in the cabins. Even excluded, the presence of African-Americans was made palpable by the smooth running of the house, the appearance of meals on the table, and the continuity of material life. Enduring the unendurable, their spirit lives now in these galleries and among the scores of relic artifacts in the museum’s underground history galleries and in the soaring arts and culture galleries at the top of the bronze corona-shaped building.
The other reference if you hear that “too” as “two” is not subservience, but dividedness.
Hughes’ pays homage to his contemporary, the intellectual leader and founder of the NAACP, W.E.B. DuBois whose speeches and essays about the dividedness of African-American identity and consciousness would rivet audiences; and motivate and compel the determined activism that empowered the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.
The African-American, according to DuBois in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folks, existed always in two ‘places” at once:
“One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
DuBois makes the body of the African-American—the body that endured so much work and which is beautifully rendered in Hughes’ second stanza “I am the darker brother”—as the vessel for the divided consciousness of his people.
DuBois writes of the continual desire to end this suffering in the merging of this “double self into a better and truer self.” Yet in doing so, DuBois argued, paradoxically, that neither “of the older selves to be lost.”
The sense of being divided in two was not just the root of the problem not just for the African-American, but for the United States. As Lincoln had spoken about the coexistence of slavery with freedom: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Hughes ties together this sense of the unity of the separate and diverse parts of the American democracy by beginning his poem with a near direct reference to Walt Whitman.
Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric” and went on to associate the power of that body with all the virtues of American democracy in which power was vested in each individual acting in concert with their fellows. Whitman believed that the “electricity” of the body formed a kind of adhesion that would bind people together in companionship and love: “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear. . .”
Hughes makes Whitman—his literary hero—more explicitly political with his assertion “I, too, sing America.”
The verb here is important because it suggests the implicit if unrecognized creative work that African-Americans provided to make America. African-Americans helped sing America into existence and for that work deserve a seat at the table, dining as coequals with their fellows and in the company of the world.
At the end of the poem, the line is changed because the transformation has occurred.
“I, too, am America.”
Presence has been established and recognized. The house divided is reconciled into a whole in which the various parts sing sweetly in their separate harmonies. The problem for the politics of all this, if not for the poem itself, is that the simple assertion of presence—“They’ll see how beautiful I am. . .” —may not be enough.
The new African American Museum on the National Mall is a powerful assertion of presence and the legitimacy of a story that is unique, tragic and inextricably linked to the totality of American history. “I, too” is Hughes at his most optimistic, reveling in the bodies and souls of his people and the power of that presence in transcendent change. But he fully realized the obstacles to true African-American emancipation and acceptance in the house of American democracy. He was the poet, remember, who also wrote “What will happen to a dream deferred?”