Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
Violence and Oppression
OK, so there's not much actual violence in "I, Too, Sing America." Actually, if you're going to look at things literally, there's no violence in the poem at all – no one gets hurt, nothing blows up, etc. But there's plenty of oppression, and if you look at the poem in its full cultural context (i.e., that of slavery), there's plenty of suggested violence within the text here. Most of the actions of the white Americans in this piece are blatantly oppressive, and those same actions are just bristling with a subtle, almost-there violence. Let's look at it in the poem.
- Lines 3-4: This image, of the white slave owners sending their house-slaves into the kitchen when company shows up for dinner, is both obviously oppressive and somewhat violent. After all, the consequences of slave disobedience and rebellion are well-documented.
- Lines 8-9: These lines aren't so much about oppression so much as they imagine a future without oppression, when the different races are seen as equal and can share meals together.
- Lines 11-12: This line is almost like a little threat (think: "how dare you?" or "don't you dare!"). The speaker seems to be saying "I have paid dearly for this freedom – and you will not be oppressing me any longer."
The Kitchen and Domesticity
The whole poem takes place in and around the home, and the vast majority of it only happens, really, in a single part of the home – the kitchen area. There's also a lot of talk about eating. Wonder why this is? Well, we'll discuss that a little more with our next "Symbolism" discussion (see: "Health as Hope"). But, for now, let's just say that the home is a symbol for domesticity. If you look at "domesticity," it doesn't take much to get to "domesticate," and from there a whole flood of slavery-and-oppression-related metaphors can take the stage. So it makes a lot of sense, in terms of this poem, for Hughes to have set the whole thing in and near a kitchen.
- Lines 3-4: These lines aren't so much symbolic as they are a literal historical truth. It's a powerful image of men being treated a lot like animals, and being banished from polite company when said company comes over to eat. (We might also note here that "eating in the kitchen" – something we probably do with some frequency now – was much less common back in the days of slavery. Back then, you always ate in the dining room. Eating in the kitchen was just for slaves and animals. Yikes.)
- Lines 5-7: The food imagery here is drastically different from the image presented in the previous couple of lines. Here, the food becomes a savior, a way for the oppressed to enrich themselves and to "grow strong." We might also think of this as a symbol for the ways in which African Americans educated themselves, bound together, and rose up to fight oppression. The "eating well," in this case, stands for learning from one another and from their experiences.
- Lines 9-10: Now we've reversed the imagery in the first part of the poem. The speaker is no longer in the kitchen, now he's "at the table." This means that he's moved into the dining room, and is a symbol for racial equality.
Health as Hope
This set of images is very closely related to the "Kitchen and Domesticity" set, but also includes the notions of nourishment-as-symbol. There are a lot of ways we nourish ourselves in a metaphorical sense, right? Literally, it just means to feed your body the nutrients it needs. But if you think about it poetically, it can mean to nurture your soul, to educate yourself, to grow from experiences. And that's exactly where the poem takes it.
- Lines 5-7: Again, we have a powerful image of the narrator taking his situation (which is awful) and turning it on its head. Instead of letting the oppression get him down, he goes to the kitchen to eat and "eats well" and "grows strong." Health, here, is being used as a symbol for perseverance – growing in the face of adversity.
- Lines 8-9: The future tense here ("Tomorrow, / I'll be") is an indicator of hope. The narrator is suggesting that by eating (both literally and figuratively), he will get to a point where he'll be on equal footing with his white oppressors.
- Lines 16-17: Here, the speaker is expressing his hope again (although really, it looks more like assurance – go, assertiveness!). He's implying that by "eating well" and "growing strong," he'll become so beautiful (which is probably meant to be both literal and metaphorical – a symbol for power and education and strength) that the white people who enslaved him will be ashamed that they ever did.