I, Too, Am America: The Poetry of Langston Hughes

LangstonHughes2Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

Recently, we have had some interesting—and at times contentious—discussions about race, racism, and bigotry in this country on this blog. We’ve talked about Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, a rodeo clown impersonating President Obama, voter suppression and Jim Crow laws. These discussions brought to mind the poetry of a great American writer—Langston Hughes. I believe his poetry makes powerful statements about the Black experience in “the land of the free.”

Here is an excerpt from Hughes’s poem Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?

So this is what I want to know:

When we see Victory’s glow,

Will you still let old Jim Crow

Hold me back?

When all those foreign folks who’ve waited—

Italians, Chinese, Danes—are liberated.

Will I still be ill-fated

Because I’m black?


Here in my own, my native land,

Will the Jim Crow laws still stand?

Will Dixie lynch me still

When I return?

Or will you comrades in arms

From the factories and the farms,

Have learned what this war

Was fought for us to learn?


When I take off my uniform,

Will I be safe from harm—

Or will you do me

As the Germans did the Jews?

When I’ve helped this world to save,

Shall I still be color’s slave?

Or will Victory change

Your antiquated views?


Click here to read the rest of the poem.


Here is a video of Langston Hughes reciting his poem I, Too:


And here is a video of poet Nikki Giovanni speaking about Langston Hughes and reading his poem Let America Be America Again:


Excerpt from Let American Be America Again:

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath—

America will be!


Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again!


Click here to read the rest of the poem.


The Negro Speaks of Rivers


Langston Hughes reads his poem, Dreams


Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes (Poetry Reading)


Langston Hughes Biography (The Academy of American Poets)

Langston Hughes Biography (The Poetry Foundation)


I’d like to recommend a book of poetry that Hughes wrote for children entitled The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. The collection contains some of his most famous poems—including Dreams, Dream Variation, April Rain Song, Minstrel Man, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, My People, Mother to Son, Merry Go Round, and I, Too.


Minstrel Man

Merry Go Round

50 thoughts on “I, Too, Am America: The Poetry of Langston Hughes”

  1. @elaine: Well, maybe off topic, maybe not. Depends on how you read it. It might be about something else entirely:

    The Polar Bear
    An Unfinished Poem
    By Squeeky Fromm, Girl Reporter

    Today I saw a Polar Bear,
    So fuzzy, warm, and white.
    I think I shall go visit him,
    There in his cage tonight.

    And then come back and finish this,
    And tell of feelings deep,
    And how I held him tenderly
    And sang him off to sleep.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  2. From the Urban Dictionary:

    A stupid way of spelling “cool”. Made up by morons.
    “I’m a stupid whore who spells cool “kewl”

  3. Gwendolyn Brooks was another great American poet.

    Excerpt from her biography, which can be found at the website of The Poetry Foundation.

    Gwendolyn Brooks was a highly regarded, much-honored poet, with the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She also was poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—the first black woman to hold that position—and poet laureate of the State of Illinois. Many of Brooks’s works display a political consciousness, especially those from the 1960s and later, with several of her poems reflecting the civil rights activism of that period. Her body of work gave her, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor George E. Kent, “a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young black militant writers of the 1960s.”

  4. Here is one of my favorite poems about the Black experience in America:

    By Countee Cullen

    (For Eric Walrond)

    Once riding in old Baltimore,
    Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
    I saw a Baltimorean
    Keep looking straight at me.

    Now I was eight and very small,
    And he was no whit bigger,
    And so I smiled, but he poked out
    His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

    I saw the whole of Baltimore
    From May until December;
    Of all the things that happened there
    That’s all that I remember.

  5. Squeeky,

    A poem for you:

    The White House
    by Claude McKay

    Your door is shut against my tightened face,
    And I am sharp as steel with discontent;
    But I possess the courage and the grace
    To bear my anger proudly and unbent.
    The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet,
    And passion rends my vitals as I pass,
    A chafing savage, down the decent street;
    Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass.
    Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour,
    Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw,
    And find in it the superhuman power
    To hold me to the letter of your law!
    Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate
    Against the potent poison of your hate.


  6. Thanks for this Elaine. Great poet and great poems. This one could have been written this week, the way things have been going for so many people:

    The Ballad Of The Landlord

    Landlord, landlord,
    My roof has sprung a leak.
    Don’t you ‘member I told you about it
    Way last week?

    Landlord, landlord,
    These steps is broken down.
    When you come up yourself
    It’s a wonder you don’t fall down.

    Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
    Ten Bucks you say is due?
    Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’l pay you
    Till you fix this house up new.

    What? You gonna get eviction orders?
    You gonna cut off my heat?
    You gonna take my furniture and
    Throw it in the street?

    Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
    Talk on-till you get through.
    You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
    If I land my fist on you.

    Police! Police!
    Come and get this man!
    He’s trying to ruin the government
    And overturn the land!

    Copper’s whistle!
    Patrol bell!
    Precinct Station.
    Iron cell.
    Headlines in press:
    Man Threatens landlord
    Tenant Held Bail
    Judge Gives Negro 90 Days In County Jail!

  7. Well, I don’t think Old Langston needs to worry much about “Dixie” lynching him. It’s a lot more likely he will get mugged and killed on his way home from a poetry reading by another little Trayvon. And, I bet Old Langston could have figured out how to register and vote all by himself, even if it required a Voter ID, and it wouldn’t have taken a whole village of crying Democrats to carry to him to the polls. Anyway, if the Smarmy Set wants poetry, then lets get some from 2013! Which is a lot more relevant:

    A Dream Derailed
    A Pastiche In The Key Of WTF???
    By Squeeky Fromm, Girl Reporter

    What happened to a Dream derailed?
    What sent it off the tracks?
    When rob’ed klansman rest in peace,
    While blacks kill other blacks.

    Once, the Overseers tore us
    Apart from families.
    Yet, never rose the day that lash
    Could bring us to our knees.

    But now we do unto ourselves
    What Slavers never could.
    And all to get some benefits,
    Or stamps for buying food.

    When did this Dream become so stained,
    In smarmy tears of pity?
    That it drowned in welfare checks, and
    Died in Inner City.

    What brought us to this foul estate
    Where Dream became Nightmare?
    And where each tiny ray of hope,
    Got lost in dark despair.

    The Dream Deferred became a tool,
    For base politic ends.
    And now, our prayer to God must be,
    “Please save us from our Friends!”

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  8. Mike,

    You were fortunate to have heard Hughes on the radio. I used to read my elementary students a couple of biographies of his life–and shared a number of the poems from his book “The Dream Keeper.”

  9. rafflaw,

    Instead of changing some of their policies, the GOP would prefer to suppress the votes of people who don’t like their policies and platform.

  10. Great article Elaine. The dream that Hughes referred to and that Martin Luther King referred to has not yet been realized. Maybe his Dream Deferred poem is more on point to the state of racism and the new Jim Crow legislation, in the form of “voter fraud prevention” laws that are designed to hold down the poor and old and minority vote, along with college students of all colors.

  11. In 1942, Hughes moved to Harlem, which became his permanent home. He traveled and lectured at universities across the United States. In 1953, during the era of McCarthyism, he was accused of being a Communist, as were many artists and writers of the time. Some of the poems and works written earlier in his career were deemed controversial, and he was summoned to testify before Congress. His testimony simply stated that he was never a Communist and named no names, well aware of blacklisting. He was excused from the hearing in good standing, and author Faith Berry notes that “Hughes ultimately emerged from the witch-hunting era with his literary career intact.”


  12. I was wondering when someone would bring up the great woks of James Mercer Langston Hughes…. Excellent point Elaine…. He did excellent work which was vey, very much in need at the time it was written and in todays time…. folks such as this write in sich a way you can feel the sadness, hope, and pain in another way….Thank you…

  13. Thank you Elaine,

    I was privileged to hear Langston Hughes on all night radio in NYC in the 50’s.
    He was a great poet and a great man, with tremendous wit and intelligence. I’m so glad you’ve continued with what seems to have developed as the theme of this weekend as a response to our new plethora of bigoted comments. Judging by some of the comments we’ve gotten one would think that people of color lack both intellectual capacity and culture. Langston Hughes is but one small example that gives lie to this view. The African American and Latino intellectual tradition contains many people of genius. Through my work I met friends who introduced me to the culture of these community’s and it is every bit as sophisticated as the cultural pretension many have about our own culture.Does one think that the speaking brilliance of Dr. King and Malcolm X, sprung full blown from nowhere? We will never be able to persuade the bigoted of the narrowness of their perspectives, but we must also never let their prejudice go unchallenged.

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