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A Racism in I Hear America Singing and I, Too

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In the midst of turbulent times of racism and hatred, authors often insert their versions of society into novels and poems to help illustrate what life was really like from people in their respective eras. Two authors helped show these two polar opposite worlds in poems that helped explain the landscape between blacks and whites of the early 1900s. Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ “I, Too, Sing America” illustrate how the racist laws put in place after the Civil War affected the way Langston Hughes reacted to Walt Whitman’s poem.

The first poem, “I Hear America Singing,” consists of one stanza, with eleven lines. The structure follows the simple list format that Whitman commonly uses in his poetry. One by one, he lists the different members of the American working class and describes the way they sing as they perform their respective tasks. He formats each line and sentence similarly. Many begin with the word ‘the,’ and contain phrases that are variations of ‘as he ___’ or ‘on his way to ___.’ The tone of the poem is joyful and hopeful. Whitman celebrates the common American worker, magnifying his characters with descriptions such as ‘robust,’ ‘friendly,’ ‘blithe,’ and ‘strong.’ (lines 2-11). He highlights individuals that often go unnoticed in classic poems. Ultimately, “I Hear America Singing” is a love poem to the nation. Whitman uses the small variations in individual experiences to craft a wholesome, honest, and hardworking American identity.

In the first line of Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman introduced the theme of his poem and said “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.”(Line 1). The employment of the word “America” creates the assumption of American people in general. Although the use of the word “America” is figurative, the word “singing” is the opposite. This poem focuses on Americans singing songs, or in Whitman’s words, “varied carols,” as they work. Whitman exhibits that he acknowledges the fact that everyone sings different songs in different tones. In the next line, “Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,” (Lines 2-3) the poet indulges into these “varied carols” and explains that these Americans are singing the way they should be. The poet utilizes the word “blithe” to highlight how joyous their voices are along with explaining how strong the carols being sung are. These carols are pleasant to the speaker as they are meeting his expectations. Lines three through five state, “The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck.” Within the content of these three lines, Whitman introduces four more singing Americans: a carpenter, a mason, a boatman, and a deck-hand. All four of these men are well-known for partaking in manual labor and accomplishing tasks through the use of their hands. As the carpenter makes his precise measurements, the following three workers hold the responsibilities of unique jobs on a boat. A great example is displayed as the deck-hand completes his tedious, yet laboring tasks on the steamboat deck. This is unglamorous work, but through their singing, these laborers exhibit enjoyment in their individual responsibilities and the speaker is proud to acknowledge their work as hard-working Americans. By including these knowingly blue-collar workers,Whitman is broadcasting a light on people who do not often make appearances in poetry.

In lines six through eight, the author provides more examples of working Americans when he writes, “The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands, The woodcutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown, The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing.” Through these motion-filled lines, Whitman introduces to the audience an array of employees while presenting the actions being performed by the employees as they are singing. These newly introduced employees include a shoemaker, a hatter, a woodcutter, a ploughboy, a mother, a young wife at work, a seamstress, and washerwomen introduced. These people sing as if they possess the pride of working hard for their money. In order to survive, whether you are old or young, black or white, female or male, money is a vital asset to ensure survival is within the realm of possibilities. In order to acquire this money, you may need to work and get your hands dirty. Though the work is strenuous and taxing on the body, the workers are committed to keeping their spirits up by singing. To efficiently complete the task, it is necessary to keep those spirits up, the speaker acknowledges that the ploughboy works from ‘morning’ to ‘sundown” and the singing is vital to his labor. Despite this, the ploughboy endure must endure a long day of hard labor, even if the ploughboy sang his songs to pass time. Whitman also acknowledges the work of women along with the manual labor of men completing laboring tasks such as woodcutting and plowing. The mother works, the young wife goes to work, and the girls wash and sew. This announces to the reader that the world of labor is also a woman’s world and not limited to the strengths and abilities of a man. Walt Whitman celebrates the work of women, even the work of a stay-at-home mom. Finally, lines nine through twelve state, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the day- at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.” The poem comes to conclusion by uniting all these singing laborers. This is displayed when Whiteman states they are ‘each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.'(Line 9). The speaker expresses the idea that each of these jobs are unique, implying each worker’s job belongs to one worker and is best executed by the holder of that respective job. He even acknowledges that this is also true of women when he included ‘him or her.’ (Line 9). This poem was written in the early 1900s, before women even obtained the legal right to vote in the United States. As much as the speaker of the poem celebrates work, he also acknowledges that there is a time for work and a time for play. The singing of the day is different than the singing of the night. The daytime singing is viewed as ‘what belongs to the day’, while at night the singing symbolizes the commencing of party time. What happens at party time? Well, ‘the young fellows, robust, friendly” sing with what Whitman describes as “open mouths their strong melodious songs.’ Singing in the poem serves as a metaphorical aspect, too. These laborers sing songs to keep themselves occupied while working, but Whitman interprets this singing as a celebratory sign that these laborers are happy to have their jobs, despite the grueling labor, and love America as well.

The second poem, “I, Too” by Langston Hughes is told in the present tense and in first person. Its subject and time period is broadly seen as slave-owning America due to the context it holds. The speaker in this poem is portrayed as a person who serves as a ‘representative’ for all black Americans during that historical and trying time in American history. It appears as if a whole community is speaking this poem in unison instead of a single individual. To view the speaker as a single individual, though, we could envision him as a black domestic servant who has ambitions, plans, and dreams for the future. He realizes where he is now, but that does not deter him from being hopeful about where he and his entire race might be in the future. Therefore, the speaker is a dreamer, convinced of his eventual equality.

In line one of “I, Too, Sing America” Hughes immediately restates the title of the poem. Singing is a particular kind of speaking, so maybe for one to ‘sing America’ means to tell someone something about America, or to speak of America. In Whitman’s poem, he composes a list of all sorts of different Americans that includes carpenters, mechanics, boatmen, shoemakers, a girl sewing – and says that all of them are singing. We envision the picture that America is like a song made up of many different voices singing. So Americans appear to serve as the composition of a chorus, where every person has an important part to sing. So maybe Langston Hughes’s speaker is imagining Americans as a big chorus, all singing together as one unit, and he’s saying he’s part of the chorus too. He’s also singing this song of America. In the poem, line two states, “I am the darker brother.” By stating this, Hughes is revealing his skin color and announcing to the audience he is African American. When he proclaims ‘the darker brother’ and not something like ‘one of the darker brothers,’ it is as if he speaking for the entire black community in America.

In lines three and four, the author states, “They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes.” This is an allusion to the days of slavery when the house servants were confined to their quarters when guests came to the house, to keep the slaves (and, by association, their race) out of sight. Of course, though slavery had ended by Hughes’s own time, racial segregation was still very much alive and well, resulting in these lines also remain completely relevant to when Hughes himself was writing. These lines might also allude to a 20th-century house with black servants. There are multiple layers of time and meaning here. The next three lines of this poem reveal the emotions the speaker feels, “But I laugh, and eat well, and grow strong.” (lines 5-7). Just after getting two lines that bring the entirety of slavery to bear on the poem, the speaker just laughs, eats, and grows stronger. Once again, the ‘I’ in this poem is a plural ‘I.’ With the “I” taking the plural form, the speaker is not actually speaking just for himself. He is speaking on behalf of his entire race, carrying the trials and history of that race. Even though the speaker has been sent away while company is present due to his race, his appetite is not any worse off for it. Nor is his sense of humor affected. Imagery can be used to imagine the speaker and the other house servants having their own dinner party in the kitchen, growing strong with each other’s support. They take pleasure in other’s company and have a great time together. These small lines set up the beginning of this poem’s ‘turn,’ which serves as the poetic change of mood.

Lines eight through ten introduce an extended metaphor, and the ‘tomorrow’ stated in line eight is actually alluding to a future time when blacks and whites will be equal. This equality is expressed through the speaker’s assertion that he too, will ‘be at the table’ the next time they have a party. “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes.” “Nobody’ll dare say to me” (Lines 11-12). These lines continue in the same vein as the previous three, wherein the speaker imagines a future in which he will be treated with the same level of respect with which white people treat each other. In this case, the emphasis is even a little stronger; not only is he present at the table, but he will have some control over what people do and don’t say to him. In other words, he will command respect. Lines thirteen through fourteen say, “Eat in the kitchen, then.” Being told to eat in the kitchen is, in this case, representative of the larger problem that’s being tackled in this poem, that is, the problem of racial inequality and injustice. Inequality makes known itself in everyday lives, it is usually in the form of an unbalanced power relation. Hughes makes this more apparent by actually ‘quoting’ the whites who have been in power here. It results in the inequality taking the form of a direct command. The last few lines state, “Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed– I, too, am America.” (Lines 15-18). This can be looked at as an example of realization on the part of the white people, as in the speaker has not become beautiful over the course of the poem, but has rather been beautiful this whole time. It has just taken this long for everyone else to realize it.  

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