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. Just Saying

    The word “Haiku”
    In Japanese has not two
    But three syllables

    Murdering Sleep

    A fog on the moor.
    “Something wicked this way comes.”
    Barack Obama


    Something vague, like steam.
    Something else, ambiguous.
    An epiphany!

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller”

  2. rafflaw,

    You’re safe! It has nothing to do with geometry.

    Haiku means “beginning phrase.” Originally, haiku was the beginning of a much longer poem–which developed from seventeen syllables.

  3. The 5-7-5 syllable structure is traditional for Japanese haiku. Many, however, feel one can use fewer syllables when writing haiku–one breath or aha! poetry–in English.

    A good book on the subject is “Haiku: One Breath Poetry” by Naomi Beth Wakan.



    Today, many bilingual poets and translators in the mainstream North American haiku scene agree that something in the vicinity of 11 English syllables is a suitable approximation of 17 Japanese syllables, in order to convey about the same amount of information as well as the brevity and the fragmented quality found in Japanese haiku. As to the form, some American poets advocate writing in 3-5-3 syllables or 2-3-2 accented beats. While rigid structuring can be accomplished in 5-7-5 haiku with relative ease due to a greater degree of freedom provided by the extra syllables, such structuring in shorter haiku will have the effect of imposing much more stringent rules on English haiku than on Japanese haiku, thereby severely limiting its potential.

    1. Squeeky,

      I was reading Basho before you were born. I know what the rules are but I use my own. 17 syllable and a referrant to place and/or season, hopefully both. The real message though is not about my poetic skill, since I have few pretetions, it is about the fact that you are a bigot and that personally disgust me. Worse though is that you pontificate about things of which you have no experience and a sociopathic lack of empathy. When I deal with such as you I don’t engage debate since that would indicate that what you say has meaning by my bothering to try to reach an understanding. You are merely a common variety bigot who can’t understand, much less listen.

  4. @MikeS:

    I am not a poem-nazi, so please take this as constructive criticism. Haikus sort of have a basic metrical structure which is:

    5 syllables
    7 syllables
    5 syllables

    This “rule” doesn’t really translate well to the English language, and there are some things which our language does not permit us. The whole point of the Haiku is to express an idea or a picture in a very non-direct manner. Think of it as Impressionism versus the pre-Raphaelites. Traditionally, the first line establishes a “season” although most English haikus don’t. There is also an idea of a cutting word which both severs and joins two different impressions. So, let’s take yours:

    Manson girl pretender
    East Texas heat burns harsh
    So sadly alone

    You wish to express the idea that I am a phony, and alone. While getting in the whole geobigotry thing. So, let’s try this:

    Hot humid Texas
    Alone, the outlaw girl draws
    A dry ice pistol

    With that edit, now you get the image of hot Texas summer, a lonely outlaw girl and you obliquely touch on the immature aspects of a little girl practicing with a phony gun, that will both freeze and burn her hand. I am certainly not above kindergarten level in my haikus. So, I hope what I said is helpful and does not screw you up.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  5. Oh, I was busy writing this:

    Shaman Eclair???
    by Squeeky Fromm, Girl Reporter

    Once, there was a foolish man
    Who had a jelly roll.
    He did not have respect for it,
    And gobbled it down whole.

    But then he got a stomach ache,
    The jelly roll’s revenge.
    And so he promised to himself,
    Next time he must not binge.

    He did not know it at the time,
    He’d stumbled on the way.
    The course that every river flowed,
    He learned from a beignet.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter

  6. Hot August night
    Frustration boils on her screen
    Girl alone again

    I don’t write much poetry, but when I do, I make it Dos Equis, er, haiku.

  7. “Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”– Dylan Thomas

    Since I don’t propose to go quietly, I’ll take a shot at composing some verse of this particular type.

    A Vicious Circle Villanelle
    (after the style of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night”)

    Once folly starts, it cannot ever cease.
    The perpetrators of the crime command:
    More dying, please! We can’t afford the peace!

    Their troubled foreheads, wrinkles deeply crease
    With consequences that they never planned.
    Once folly starts, it cannot ever cease.

    No logic brings intelligent release.
    The unforced errors earn no reprimand.
    More dying, please! We can’t afford the peace!

    The mounting costs leave few sheep fit to fleece.
    Who next will pay the ransom on demand?
    Once folly starts, it cannot ever cease.

    Yet still the sophists ladle on the grease:
    Those ancient fallacies the flames have fanned.
    More dying, please! We can’t afford the peace!

    The lies add up in thousands dead apiece.
    The questions begged, both trivial and bland:
    Once folly starts, it cannot ever cease?
    More dying, please? We can’t afford the peace?

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2008

  8. Still I Rise (Excerpt)
    by Maya Angelou

    You may write me down in history
    With your bitter, twisted lies,
    You may trod me in the very dirt
    But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

    Does my sassiness upset you?
    Why are you beset with gloom?
    ‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
    Pumping in my living room.

    Just like moons and like suns,
    With the certainty of tides,
    Just like hopes springing high,
    Still I’ll rise.

    Did you want to see me broken?
    Bowed head and lowered eyes?
    Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
    Weakened by my soulful cries?

    Does my haughtiness offend you?
    Don’t you take it awful hard
    ‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
    Diggin’ in my own backyard.

    You may shoot me with your words,
    You may cut me with your eyes,
    You may kill me with your hatefulness,
    But still, like air, I’ll rise.


    You can read the rest of the poem at this link:

  9. @elaine:

    That was a very good poem! A person does not have to like or agree with what a poet says to appreciate the poetry itself. Although it helps.I do hope you and others noticed that mine was “unfinished”, while the poetess (Me!) promised to come back and finish it. That was significant.

    I only mention this because critical analysis of poetry is kind of a lost art, and stuff like The Explicator is way too expensive to just be laying around willy nilly. Although luckily I do have 3 old hardcover volumes I bought at a library sale a few years ago.

    Squeeky Fromm
    Girl Reporter.

  10. The Polar Bear
    A Poem for Squeeky
    (Who knows how she’ll interpret it???)

    Today I saw a polar bear,
    Ferocious, savage, white.
    He clung to his small floe of ice
    With all his beary might.

    But as his floe receded,
    Melting into warming sea,
    He looked at me and queried,
    “What’s to become of me?”

  11. “The scale of the catastrophe in Iraq is so extreme that it can barely be reported.” — Noam Chomski, Failed States

    To all the “conservative” imperialists and “liberal” humanitarian interventionists (the falling bombs look the same from the “liberated” victim’s point of view), I propose an experiment in empathy. Try imagining the ingrate object of America’s homicidal benevolence saying:

    Thanks for Nothing

    Benevolent invader of my land
    How can I thank you for the helping hand?
    Why, had you not come here with awe and shock,
    Reducing my poor home to piles of rock,
    I might have raised my children safe and sound,
    But, thanks to you, I’ve laid them in the ground.

    A wife I had, once too, but now no more.
    She died one day while driving to the store.
    Some nervous mercenaries that you hired
    Screamed something at her once, then aimed and fired.
    The bullet-riddled windshield told the tale:
    That “freed” of life, our women need no veil.

    Your generals have come so many times,
    Yet never have to answer for their crimes.
    Instead, promotion weighs them down with stars
    But never, like enlisted men, the scars
    Resulting from the bungling and sheer waste
    Of thinking last but shooting first in haste.

    On nine-eleven, two-thousand-and-one
    You got a taste of what you’ve often done
    To countries that had never caused you harm
    Yet still, too late, you sounded the alarm
    And whipped yourself into a lather thick
    So you could hurt yourself with your own stick.

    Three thousand on that fateful day you lost.
    Six thousand more you’ve added to the cost
    Since then, which only proves that there or here
    You act the same: in folly, rage, and fear.
    In time, you’ll go back home to where you’re from,
    To fight among yourselves, the deaf and dumb.

    Too bad for all the carnage that you’ve caused
    Who never thought or for a minute paused
    Before afflicting us with your disease:
    A plague of bankrupt bullies, fascist fleas,
    Who, both hands outward stretched to beg a loan,
    Continue “helping” us to shrink and groan.

    You talk to pat yourselves upon the back.
    Your actions only scream of what you lack:
    The insight and intelligence to see
    How much you’ve harmed yourself as well as me.
    But just the same I’ll thank you to go home
    Before you earn the fate that toppled Rome.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2009

  12. For you, Squeeky:

    Fast Food Do-Gooder

    I went to see the polar bear
    Imprisoned in his cage
    By white men who look very much like me.
    I meant to pet and stroke his hair
    And soothe his wounded rage.
    What I looked like to him, I didn’t see.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller”

  13. Squeek confuses “pollution” for “poetry.” Or even prose, for that matter.

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