FAVORITE POEM— I, Too
October 31, 2020
By Margaret Rozga, Wisconsin Poet Laureate
Do you have a second favorite?” I asked Bay View resident Tim Thering, a history professor and campus administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at Waukesha. He had named Langston Hughes’ “I, Too” as his favorite poem. That Hughes’ poem is an excellent poem and an essential part of the American literature canon, but it was also the choice of Andre Lee Ellis, whom I interviewed for the July 2019 column. I thought at first I can’t write about the same poem twice.
But, of course, I can. Excellent poems not only stand up to rereadings, they invite them. In this case, Andre and Tim came to the poem from different perspectives and thus brought different insights to the discussion of the poem. The poem that claims equality and asserts the strength of the “darker brother,” is deeply personal for Andre, who is African American. When he came home from school, upset that other children teased him for his dark skin, his mother gave him courage by reciting the poem to him. Here are its opening lines:
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.
Professor Thering, who is white, says, “I recite this poem at the beginning of each semester to my students in History 102.” This introductory U.S. history survey course begins with the post-Civil War Reconstruction and includes the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement. It also includes study of the rise of Jim Crow segregation laws that reestablished many of the conditions of slavery.
As a historian who keeps up with current research, Tim teaches the in-depth analysis presented most cogently by historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall as “the long civil rights movement.” In other words, the fight for civil rights did not begin with the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in schools and end with the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. Rather African Americans in an ongoing way have consistently found strategies to affirm their rights.
Poetry has been one of these ways. In Tim’s words, “Art can be beautiful, and it can also be an agent of change.” Tim’s recitation of “I, Too” is a way of orienting his students to this long term and multi-disciplinary perspective. The lines of the poem suggest multiple strategies. There may at times be a retreat, symbolized in being sent to the kitchen, but there is also resistance and fortifying resolve in the laughing, eating well, and growing strong.
Hughes was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a flourishing of literature, music, theater, and art as African Americans moved from the South to this New York neighborhood beginning about 1910 and continuing until the Depression and the end of Prohibition in the mid-1930s. Hughes’ poem, Tim says, “helps place the Harlem Renaissance in context.” Other events of the time include violence by white mobs against black communities after World War I in numerous cities including Chicago and Tulsa, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The poem offers a hopeful vision for the future:
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
Eat in the kitchen,
Nor is it just fear that will allow him a place at the table. Rather it is a revision of attitude and understanding on the part of those who had shunned African Americans. “Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed.” Hughes’ poem “I, Too” offers much to unpack in personal, aesthetic, and historical terms. It is worth rereading multiple times.
Tim also answered my question about a second favorite, Martha Collins’ book Blue Front, especially the untitled opening segment in that book. In its entirety, this book-length poem focuses on the lynching of an African American in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois, taking a personal angle in its approach. Collins’ father witnessed this lynching as a five-year-old boy who frequently sold fruit near the site of the lynching. Her father amazed customers because even at his young age, he could correctly figure out what change a customer might be owed. Collins uses the phrase “he made change” both to describe her father at age five and to suggest the theme of making the change needed to end lynching.
Both of Professor Tim Thering’s favorite poems help to underscore an important point. Poetry not only can look inward at personal emotions but also can look outward at social conditions and historical events. Sometimes it does both at once. Thus it deserves a wide audience so that multiple perspectives can enrich our understanding of poems important to our cultural heritage.
For a copy of Langston Hughes’ “I, Too,” poets.org/poem/i-too.
For more about Martha Collins’ book-length poem Blue Front,