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"I, Too, Sing America": Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance



Where's the Grits?

Langston Hughes wrote poetry, prose, plays, novels, songs, essays and children's books

After more than three centuries of violence and racial discrimination, African Americans in the Deep South had had enough. Around the turn of the 20th century, they started leaving their homes by the tens of thousands. Things were happening up North, they heard -- particularly in a neighborhood of New York City called Harlem. Blacks there had established their own community, and there were rumors of cabarets, all-night jazz jams, and dance clubs. In Harlem were writers, actors, artists and musicians who came from every corner of the country. These folks were making some of the greatest works in African American history -- so many, in fact, that this time period became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The unofficial Harlem Master poet of the Renaissance was Langston Hughes.

The Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center in Queens commemorates their namesake

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.


I'll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody'll dare

Say to me,

"Eat in the kitchen,"



They'll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed --

I, too, am America.

Langston started composing poems when he was in junior high. Yet, instead of exploring his own voice, he copied the famous writers of that period -- all of whom were white. Back then, blacks didn't often write about their own lives, or use the words of black English, which was considered bad for peotry. Instead, whites depicted black life and language -- and they did a pretty lousy job.

Stephanie and Andrew Jackson stand by their man, Langston Hughes

It took a trip to Mexico to make Langston see this problem in his own writing. Mexicans, he realized, took great pride in their identity through their art. Why didn't he? He vowed then and there to record the American experience through the eyes of his people.

Making it as a writer is no easy task, however, and Langston had to work twice as hard to get half as far as writers with lighter skin. He succeeded by creating poetry, short stories, novels, essays, newspaper columns, plays, song lyrics, and children's stories. His favorite subject was Harlem, where he lived on and off for the rest of his life.

One of Langston's former residences in Harlem

Langston became a legend in his own time. He published dozens of books and hundreds of written works, and he founded community theater groups in Harlem, Los Angeles and Chicago. He awarded honorary PhDs from Howard and Western Reserve Universities. And he never, ever forgot where he came from. In his later years, Langston became a father figure to many struggling black artists and writers in Harlem. After his death in 1967, he continue to inspire thousands more.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org



Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - "I'm African! No, I'm American! No, I'm African!" No, I'm American!
Nick - How the government ground down a community
Stephanie - Two nations, one country