This is an interpretation and examination of the two poems "I, too, Sing America," by Langston Hughes, and "I Hear America Singing," by Walt Whitman.
Interpreting "I Hear America Singing"
Walt Whitman (1816-1892) was a prominent poet during the 19th century. Walt Whitman's poem "I Hear America Singing" was one of the poems in his compilation book Leaves of Grass, which was published in July of 1855. This poem celebrates the hard-working blue-collar citizens of America.
During the 1800's and early 1900s, there was mass immigration to the United States, especially from Europe, because people were looking for a better life and more opportunities. These people believed in the "American Dream" and were determined to come to America, work hard, and improve the lives of their family. Whitman's poem reflects this by discussing people happily singing and praising the virtues of American life as they work at their occupations. All of the people are happy for what "belongs to him or her and no one else." This line implies that these people had nothing to call their own before they came to America.
It is also important to note that Whitman is uniting these people by the repetition of the word "singing." These people all presumably come from different countries and backgrounds and may or may not even speak English, but the thing that unites them and makes them the same is that they all are "singing" the praises and virtue of America and they all came for a better life. Thus, though they came from different places, they are all Americans now.
In reality, many immigrants moved in to neighborhoods with other people from their country and segregated themselves. This is how we end up with the Little Italy's and Chinatown's of America. Many immigrants were stereotyped and reviled, such as the Italians. Most people simply did not interact with people outside of their own culture whether it be because of language barriers or racism.
"I, too, Sing America" as a Response to "I Hear America Singing"
When Whitman wrote "I Hear America Singing," he was writing about the unification of many types of people as Americans, but the problem with this poem was that most immigrants didn't associate with other people and kept to themselves, due to the reasons listed above. Also, not all groups of people were included in this poem because slavery had yet to be abolished in 1855. It was not until 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation that slavery was abolished.
Langston Hughes' poem is often seen as a response to Walt Whitman's, but I've often found that slavery is overlooked when comparing the dichotomy between these two poems,this could be because Langston Hughes was writing in the mid-1900s after slavery was abolished and during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The mistake made here is by reading the poem and assuming the poet is also the speaker of the poem. Hughes could have been writing the poem from a slaves point of view. It would make sense that he would be reflecting on slavery because, though African Americans were free during the time he was writing, they still did not have the same rights as white people did.
When the speaker of Hughes poem says, "I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes," it is implying that the "darker brother" in the poem is a slave. Why else would someone be sending him to the kitchen to eat away from the company? The kitchen table represents inequality while the table that company eats at is representing freedom and equality. In the first line of the poem, the speaker is basically saying, "Hey, what about us? We may not have come here by choice, but we are Americans now too and we also 'Sing America.'"
I hope that you reread these poems and find new meaning in the poem "I, too, Sing America." I also hope that you consider teaching these poems side-by-side in your Language Arts classroom during Black History Month.