The first stanza of ‘‘I, Too’’ consists of only one line, in which the speaker asserts that he is also celebrating being an American. The title, with its use of the word too suggests that the speaker is replying to another literary work. The emphasis in the line is on this word, since that is the most important word in this four-word line. In fact, ‘‘I, Too’’ is a response to Walt Whitman’s 1860 poem, ‘‘I Hear America Singing.’’ Whitman’s poem celebrates American patriotism. The poet lists a number of different professions, including a carpenter and a mason, all of whom sing about their happiness at being American. Hughes’s response is a reminder that black Americans also form part of this culture. By beginning with the singular personal pronoun, I, Hughes quickly establishes that the poet is also the subject of the poem. He also sings of the greatness of the United States just as Whitman’s singers of the nineteenth century sang their tribute.
In the second stanza, the narrator begins by defining himself as a brother, albeit the darker brother who is set apart, segregated from his white brother when company visits. The use of the word brother is not intended to be read as the literal brother but symbolically, as all men are brothers. All Americans are united as one. The United States welcomes all people to its shores and offers all the opportunity to achieve the American dream. Hughes’s poem, however, suggests that not all Americans are given the same opportunity to achieve their dreams. Some— those with dark skin—are cast aside and kept from achieving the dream. Hughes reminds his readers that those people are equal to all others; they are brothers to the white majority.
The second line of stanza 2 refers to more than just being sent to the kitchen to eat. African Americans were victims of Jim Crow laws in the 1920s, when Hughes was a young writer. These laws kept black people separate from white people on public transportation, in restaurants, in theaters, at drinking fountains, and in public bathrooms. Miscegenation laws made it illegal for a black person to marry a white person, and poll taxes and literacy tests kept black Americans from voting. Black children were educated separately from white children. Hughes’s reference to being sent to the kitchen when company arrived is intended to represent all of the ways in which blacks and whites were separated in American life during the early twentieth century.
The last three lines of this stanza are a reminder that the darker brothers, who are cast aside, are not defeated. The poet suggests that he uses the time in which he has been segregated to his own advantage. He is able to grow stronger. The second stanza establishes that segregation is still a part of life for many black Americans, but the last lines of the stanza indicate that segregation will not last.
This stanza begins with only a word. Tomorrow is a word filled with hope that the next day will be better than the current one. The first lines of stanza 3 are a promise that the world will change for black Americans. Someday they will not live in segregation, isolated from the rest of humankind. Someday, whenever that elusive ‘‘tomorrow’’ occurs, black brothers will not be separated from their white brothers. They will all be at the same table, enjoying the abundance that all Americans experience. This is the promise of the American dream, which will someday be enjoyed by all people, black and white.
In the last few lines of stanza 3, the poet issues a warning. There will come a time when no one will cast him aside and when no American will be cast aside because his skin is darker. The poet is issuing a challenge. He is daring anyone who thinks that black people can be cast aside to try and hold him back. He makes clear that when tomorrow arrives and black people are treated as equals, the past cannot then be recalled. Once the dark brother sits at the table, he will not willingly return to the past.
In stanza 4, the narrator reminds readers that there are additional reasons for giving the black American the equality he deserves. Although the narrator suggests that his beauty provides a reason to end segregation, he is not talking solely about the kind of physical beauty that sets him apart from other people. He is talking about the beauty of existence. There is beauty in life, in living. The poet claims that once white people realize that black people are beautiful, they will be ashamed that they denied black people their equality. This is an optimistic view that all people will regret segregation. The speaker is hopeful that all people will see that each human being deserves life and opportunity.
The final line of this poem parallels the first line, with only a single word change. The poet is an American. Where the opening line claims that the poet joins his white brothers in singing to celebrate America, in the final lines, the speaker states that he is America. The speaker, an individual, suggests that he also represents all Americans and American values. This final line is a declaration of equality, a resounding claim to equal opportunity to achieve the American dream.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Langston Hughes, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009