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Langston Hughes

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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“I, Too” and “Mother To Son” by Langston Hughes use imagery to convey deeper meaning. Hughes depicts a dining room conjoined to a kitchen in “I, Too” to explore race relations in an optimistic and rebellious tone. However, “Mother to Son” uses a dark and subtle atmosphere to convey life as a long and exhaustive trek. While “I, Too” delves into freedoms on the brink of availability, “Mother To Son” portrays African-American reality as riddled with oppression. Using imagery of dining rooms, kitchens and stairs, “I, Too” and “Mother to Son” rely upon each other to show a double-sided image of African-American mid-20th century life.

“I, Too” is free verse, using line breaks to provide emphasis instead of conventional metered language. In the first line, the poem introduces the speaker as an outcast struggling to establish his identity within America by stating “I, Too, sing America.” The speaker uses singing to express his love for an idyllic concept of America. The poem continues by establishing that the speaker is unique due to the color of his skin. After firmly describing the speaker, Hughes proceeds to document how the qualities set forth dictate his treatment. At the same time, the first spatial metaphor discussed in this essay is described. Hughes is confined to a kitchen due to his color. So far, discrimination is portrayed as a negative force that both contradicts and permeates America. The two longest (by number of words) lines reminisce about the direct interactions between the speaker and his employers (“They send me to eat in the kitchen/... /They’ll see how beautiful I am.”) Two of the shortest lines (by number of words) longer than one word are those of protest, as exemplified by “But I laugh/… /Nobody’ll dare” on lines 5 and 11. After describing a setting and its community, Hughes documents an optimistic prediction that the speaker will grow, triumph over his oppressors and be treated as an equal. This growth is via laughter, physical development and a satisfied appetite. He triumps when he is seated in the dining room like the rest of the community. A 3rd party titled “company” visits the dining room, and at the same time there is a shift in racial climate. Although this is not explored in the poem, this line recalls global pressures which forced America to adopt a less blatantly segregated personality. The poem concludes as the speaker describes his beauty and reiterates that he is indeed also a member of America.

Mother To Son uses half rhymes and line breaks to dramatize the crystal stairs. The speaker is a mother telling her son a story, and the poem seems to be a fictionalization of an encounter between Hughes and his mother. The poem initially describes the ruins of the stair and finishes by describing that in some places it is bare. The stairs are gradually stripped of their furnishings until finally nothing is left except for a solitary path. The poem continues by describing the process of climbing the stairs. It progresses by describing the importance of climbing and how crucial it is to not stop. It concludes by stating that she has continued climbing and that life for her is no crystal stair, thereby jolting the reader and providing guidance toward the meanings of the crystal stairs. By isolated stressed words and disregarding the repetitive “And” at the beginning of many lines, a condensed version is isolated which provides clarity; “Life ain’t crystal stair/It’s tacks/Splinters/Boards” Powerful nouns are stressed to clearly deliver the message of the strain imposed on the climber. Disregarding the “And” at the beginning of many lines, the poem develops a half-rhyme as the mother describes “I’se been a-climbin’ on/…reachin’ landin’s,/turnin’ corners” The wrecked stairs symbolize the persistent struggles in the mother’s life, although referencing crystal stairs implies that there are privileged counterparts. The overall poem is one of exhaustive persistence.

The staircase in “Mother To Son” is part of the kitchen in “I, Too.” Both poems describe the inevitable plight of the speaker, although the end of each poem suddenly frames this plight differently. The destroyed stairs described in “Mother To Son” can be symbolized as the struggles and opportunities for personal growth occurring in the kitchen of “I, Too”, while the crystal stairs mentioned are similar to the dining. Each poem portrays the positive alternative to the harsh reality shown. In each poem, an African-American in the 1900’s is faced with two terrible options: consent or rebellion. Each poem indicates that consent is the most reliable option available, yet “I, Too” complicates this simple extraction by allowing the speaker to wish for liberation. As a result of his optimistic hopefulness, the speaker in “I, Too” possibly liberates himself. Although the staircase may change, Hughes’ character remains imprisoned by ideologies deeply ingrained in what he deems the un-American psyche. His optimism is never actually justified, although it is what drives him to continually climb the staircase in hopes of breaking free of the kitchen.

Varied imagery illuminates the same topic in Langston Hughes’ “I, Too” and “Mother To Son.” By analyzing both poems together, a rendering of African-American life during the mid-20th century is possible. From the careful use of line breaks to the deliberate choices of metaphors, Hughes produces a well-rounded and comprehensive description of his people during his era. With poetry as his vessel, Hughes provides a clear window into an American song.


Originally prepared as "I, Too", Notice Societal Implications for English 4W, due 14 July 2006.