Langston Hughes Vision of African American Culture in “I, Too” and “Dream Variations”
The period of the Harlem Renaissance was a time of great change and exploration for American culture, specifically African Americans. Early in the twentieth century, African Americans were exploring their cultural and social roots (Harlem). One of America’s more influential poets and playwrights during the period was none other than Langston Hughes (Jayakar). Hughes more famous works include his social justice masterpiece “I, Too”, as well as “Dream Variations” which enriches the reader in African culture being seen in African Americans.
Inferior and black; in Langston Hughes’ early life, he was seen as nothing but that. Born on February 1st, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was born at the backend of the Civil War. Slaves were freed and living amongst society, but not living the life that America promised (Gay). With racial tensions high and America being a difficult place for African Americans to reside, the Hughes family decided to leave the country. They ventured to Cuba and Mexico in order to avoid racial discrimination, but soon Hughes and his mother returned to America. They did not live in the same place for long until Hughes went to high school. In school he excelled in writing and was a part of many clubs and activities. But he was two things that nobody in America wanted to be in the early 1900s, black and gay (Gay). His struggle for fairness and inclusion throughout his years has given him a very specific writing style, always having the theme of justice, culture, and insertion into society in his work.
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Post-Reconstruction in America, African American people still were not treated as equals in society, constantly being seen as inferior and segregated against by the white population. The country was whole, but many societal issues still stood as a wall to a true prosperous community. Because of this, African Americans took it upon themselves to flourish in their own culture, thus starting the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. This time period brought many talented black artists, writers, and musicians come into the light (Harlem). An absolute icon of the Harlem Renaissance was none other than Langston Hughes. Hughes inspired a sense of ethnic nationalism in the black community in post war American and on the brink of another World War. He used his writing to fight against the idea of racism, segregation, and inferiority, and for the idea of nation and unity. The majority of his works, including “I, Too” and “Dream Variations” hit on the way black people wanted to be included into society during the early 1900s, free from segregation, seen as equals. Hughes’ writing style put aside the art in order to fight the more societal and political issues, showcasing his strong Americanism in his writing (Dawahare).
Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Variations” is a poem that shows an himself, an African American man, in the 1900s wishing for a life without racial persecution and discrimination. The use of imagery throughout the poem to explain what it was like to be black in America along with his wish for wanting race to no longer be an issue. The repetition of the words “black like me” following the use of the figurative language brings forth the Americanism in his work.
Uma Kukathas’ critical essay on the poem includes some powerful words to positively show his appreciation for Hughes work on Dream Variations. Kukathas continually brings up the idea of “the use of the dream as the subject” as being an imaginative way to go about the message that Hughes was trying to show through his work. Kukathas also says that “the poem celebrates and admires darkness and night, it shows light and dark, pale and black complementing each other and playing important roles in the speaker’s dream,” explaining that the poem is personifying the dream that African Americans strive for. Kukathas uses positive connotations to show that Hughes’ writing was important to inclusiveness and African American culture (Kukathas).
Ryan D. Poquette takes a much more critical route in his essay, hitting on the points that Hughes wants a life that mimics his own dream, claiming it to be “a life that mimics the freedom and colorblindness of nature, as idealized by his natural, African heritage.” Poquette differs from Kukathas’ viewpoint on the poem, not necessarily criticizing the poem itself, but more so the simplistic nature of it. Poquette also states how the poem so strongly differs from the reality of black oppression, showing how what the poem depicts it is just but a dream (Poquette).
In the poem, “I Too”, delves more into the political aspect of Hughes writing. He writes of a black man sent to the kitchen to eat when the company comes, showing the racial discrimination in America. While sitting alone eating, he betters himself, gets stronger, becomes hopeful. He once again is dreaming or envisioning a brighter tomorrow for African Americans. In the second half of the poem, he dreams of being able to sit at the table with the guests and be seen as beautiful, breaking from the grips of racial segregation. The poem in all has powerful themes of race, along with ambition to be free.
In David Roessel criticism of the poem, he states “The poem stands as both a social and poetic credo, a public and private declaration. And just as from the public perspective, speaking for all African Americans, Hughes’s “”I”” is still waiting to sit equally at the American table.” Roessel believes that this poem, along with Hughes as a poet in general deserves to be considered one of the greatest in American history, speaking very positive to his character and message. The poem was a powerful political statement at the time, showing racial discrimination and hope for a better future in the eyes of African Americans, and in Roessel’s mind a future not totally achieved (Roessel).
In Dean Rader’s critical essay, he is explaining that the poem is merely a copy of Walt Whitman’s style and ideas, just from an African Americans point of view. Starting off the poem by saying “I, too, sing America”, Hughes is basically restating that beginning of Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing” from the black American point of view, wanting to be included in the nation’s society as equals. Rader states “In his poem, “”I, Too,”” Langston Hughes both implicitly and explicitly responds to the great poet of freedom and democracy, Walt Whitman. Hughes’ opening lines recalls Whitman’s “”I Hear America Singing,”” “”Still Though the One I Sing”” and even Song of Myself.” He basically is saying that Hughes emulated Whitman, using his work as inspiration in order to fight for the societal rights of African Americans. Rader does not necessarily think that Hughes is a bad poet, just unoriginal in his work (Rader).
To conclude, Langston Hughes made a major change in African American culture through his writing, through his influential and powerful poetry. He first handedly witnessed the social injustice faced by African Americans on a daily basis in society and used it to inspire his writing in order to elicit a change. Two of his more profound pieces “I, Too” and “Dream Variations” showcase his dreams for equality and fairness in American society, as well as showing his political and societal viewpoints as an African American writer. His work inspired Americans throughout the Harlem Renaissance and shed a new light on societal issues coming from a black man himself.”