Patriotism's a pretty complicated concept. It can mean standing up for your country or criticizing it. If you want to sum up patriotism, you can simply call it "love for one's country." But how does one love a country? Unconditionally?
Langston Hughes certainly doesn't think so. And "I, Too, Sing America" is, in fact, a patriotic poem. Just in some very unexpected ways.
Hughes was often considered the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural explosion that took place in New York City during the 1920s and '30s, giving rise to popular jazz, all kinds of African-American art, and a whole slew of seminal (that means first, and really important) works of African-American literature and poetry. You probably already know some of Hughes's other poetry, like "Harlem" (also called "Dream Deferred") and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."
Hughes published "I, Too, Sing America" in 1926, a solid few decades before the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Racism and prejudice were rampant in the US at the beginning of the 20th century – much more than they are now – and so Hughes's poem envisions a day in which whites and blacks will eat "at the table" together, in which black citizens will be truly classified as equal Americans.
We started this party talking about patriotism. Let's talk about it a little more; specifically, why you should care about patriotism in terms of this poem. Get your American flags out and prepare to examine the heck out of them. Metaphorically speaking, of course (hey, we're poets here too).
Patriotism's all about loving your country and being proud to be its citizen, right? Well, yes and no. If you love your country, you want what's best for it, and sometimes what's best for it isn't always what it's doing at that time. So sometimes patriotism can take the form of "tough love," in which you have to criticize your government and/or society in order to get it to wake up and improve itself – be the best that it can be.
In Langston Hughes's case, he knows that by birth he's an American citizen. But as a black man in the pre-Civil Rights United States, he sure isn't being treated like one. So something's got to change. "I, Too, Sing America" hearkens back quite literally to the days of slavery, when African Americans were supposed to be barely-visible labor, not actual human beings. The implication of this poem is that, in practice, not a whole lot has changed since then.
So Hughes pens this poem, in which he envisions a greater America, a more inclusive America. He claims with force that he is in fact part of America – a country that's all about equality and freedom.
Freedom and equality. Now those are two concepts that we can get behind, right? Those are two concepts that good citizens of the United States should champion, right? Right. So in very few words, and with some startling imagery, Hughes is really teaching us how to assert ourselves, and how to be true Americans – Americans who aren't afraid to try and improve their country, and who aren't afraid to claim its citizenship, no matter what.
Poets.org: Langston Hughes
A good bio, lots of poetry samples, and related stuff on the left sidebar.
The Beineke Library Langston Hughes Page
Don't skip the cool audio intro. An amazing Hughes resource page (check out the first and last drafts of "Harlem" ("Dream Deferred") – very neat). Thanks to the library folks at Yale.
Modern American Poetry: Langston Hughes
A biography of Hughes, plus lots of commentary on his poems.
Langston Hughes: Voices and Visions
Check out a clip from a documentary on Langston Hughes.
Hughes reads "I, Too, Sing America"
He calls it "I, Too"
Denzel Washington recites "I, Too, Sing America."
A photo of Langston Hughes in 1939.
Sing America T-Shirt
Yep, you can get it on a shirt. But not the whole poem, unfortunately.
"I Hear America Singing"
Read the Walt Whitman poem that likely inspired Hughes's "I, Too, Sing America."