The idea that personal experience defines an individual’s definition of the American Dream is clearly illustrated in the poems “I, too” by Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and “America” by Claude McKay. Both iconic poets wrote during the Harlem Renaissance (1918-1937) which reflected changes that took place in the African American community after the Civil War. McKay and Hughes work, each in their own style, deal with similar themes concerning the experience of African-Americans and the laws that prevented them from attaining the American Dream.
Langston Hughes wrote “I, Too, Sing America” in response to an earlier poem “I Hear America Singing” written by Walt Whitman. Whitman’s poem is uplifting and celebrates the vibrancy and strength of Americans working together and Hughes responded with a different reality from the perspective of a black slave. In Hughes poem, the speaker claims he is ‘the darker brother’ (2), referring to his skin color, and he describes being sent ‘to eat in the kitchen / when company comes’ (3-4). The division between whites and blacks is clear. They are not equals. The line “I too sing, America” (1) refers to black people pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States but not having the same rights as white citizens. They are not free to pursue happiness because of the racist laws of the time. McKay’s poem, “America” describes a hostile environment. McKay personifies America as a neglectful caregiver. Instead of seeing “her” as a land of opportunity he sees her as cruel and destructive. The struggle is evident even in the first three lines: “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, /And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, /Stealing my breath of life,” (1-3). These lines also speak to the frustration black people feel for not having a voice within the country. Both McKay and Hughes also see the struggle as strengthening the black community’s resolve to gain equality. In “I, too”, when the speaker says “But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong” (5-7), Hughes is saying the struggle will make them stronger. Similarly, McKay says in “America”. “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,/Giving me strength erect against her hate (5,6).
Although both poets had similar messages and both express bitterness towards racial injustice their delivery is different. McKay relies on the sonnet, keeping the formal, recognizable structure to try to get his message across. Langston Hughes, on the other hand, influenced by Jazz music, writes in no set structure and uses street language. His tone is passive whereas McKay’s diction is forceful and angry. The speaker in McKay’s poem “America” is also less optimistic “Darkly I gaze into the days ahead” (11). Whereas in Hughes poem, the speaker is looking forward to a time in the future, “Tomorrow,/I’ll be at the table” (8-9) when his people will be as free. His message is that the patriot must not just accept but rather protect the ideals that America stands for.
In exploring the poems of both McKay and Hughes, we get some idea of the complex political and social circumstances within the black community at that time that colored their view of the American Dream. For both, America does not live up to expectations.
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