“I, too, sing America,” wrote Langston Hughes in the opening lines of one his most memorable poems, “I, Too.” In this line, Hughes forces a conversation about his place in American poetry by calling out one of the fathers of American poetry, Walt Whitman. Generations before, during the Civil War, Whitman wrote, “I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear.”
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. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table When company comes. Nobody’ll dare Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen," Then. Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed— I, too, am America.
In the lines that follow, he provides a litany of Americans who contribute their voices to the song that comprises America. A variety of occupations receive attention, mechanics, carpenters, masons. A mother, a wife, a girl are mentioned. But no one’s race is discussed.
As many of us are aware, February is Black History Month in America. Black History Month evolved from “Negro History Week,” which was begun by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 with the goal of integrating black history into the history curriculum currently being used.
However, even now, black history is taught as separate from American history, being given a designated and limited place in history and literature books. In high school, students most often encounter Hughes in the context of what is termed the Harlem Renaissance. The word “renaissance” as it is used here also recasts the movement in terms more comfortable to a Eurocentric audience. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, at the time, the movement wasn’t known as the Harlem Renaissance, but rather as the “New Negro Movement.”)
Calling to mind marble statues and paintings of the Virgin Mary, using “renaissance” gives Harlem the appearance of prosperity and glamor. The reality was somewhat different. In “Theme for English B,” we hear Hughes detail his decent into the guts of Harlem from the “college on a hill”—where he is the only black student in the class. The poem’s speaker takes an elevator to his room at the Harlem Branch Y to complete an assignment: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you— / Then, it will be true.”
This assignment comes with a set of unstated expectations about the student who is to complete it. The speaker wrestles with writing, asking himself how he is any different from the instructor—he likes music, he likes to smoke a pipe. What is different is his race. The speaker asks, “So will my page be colored that I write? / Being me, it will not be white.”
Black history is American history. But when American history is white, how can we discuss black history? Andre M. Perry—a scholar on race, education, and economics at the Brookings Institute—discusses the many issues that arise when black history is separated from American history and relegated to a single month. He states, “White history as we know it can no longer be the standard in a multicultural society which is supposed to maximize the potential of all its members.”
Astonishing black authors are writing today in every genre. They might not be on the “Black History Month” tables at your local bookstore, which is likely crowded with books about black history or with books from famous black authors (most likely deceased) whom people are familiar with. By all means, read those books. But also, use Black History Month as an impetus to search out black authors whose poetry and prose will stick with you long after February ends.