Langston Hughes (1901–1967): “I, Too” (1945)
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes grew up in the Midwest but moved to New York at the beginning of the 1920s in order to study at Columbia University. Finding the atmosphere at Columbia rather hostile to black students, Hughes soon dropped out of college and moved to the nearby Harlem neighborhood, where he sensed the growing energies of the cultural scene, while also becoming interested in radical politics. Hughes subsequently became one of the younger members of the Harlem Renaissance, an important African American cultural movement centered in Harlem. He also emerged as one of its leaders, as when his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926) became something of a manifesto for the movement. Hughes was the most important poet to emerge from the movement, remaining a prominent poet and African American cultural icon until his death. He was an important influence on the Civil Rights Movement, much admired by Martin Luther King, Jr., among others.
Hughes’ 1945 poem “I, Too” is one of the best known poetic statements of his political attitudes. Looking back to Walt Whitman’s use of “I” as both a personal pronoun and a statement of collective American identity in poems such as “Song of Myself,” Hughes reminds us in this poem that this collective “I” has all too often not included African Americans. In very plain, straightforward language, he expresses this situation by envisioning America as a family in which African Americans (the “darker brother”) have been relegated to marginal status, sent to eat separately in the kitchen whenever company comes for dinner. The poem ends, though, on a positive note, imagining a day when African Americans will be welcome to join the family as full and equal members.
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.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997): “America” (1956)
Allen Ginsberg is the single writer who became most closely associated with the Beat Generation, probably the most important cultural movement in 1950s America. Ginsberg’s long poem Howl (1956), for example, comes as close as anything to being the centerpiece of the movement. Openly gay and an inspiration to the Gay Rights Movement, Ginsberg also came to be closely associated with the Hippie culture and the antiwar movement of the 1960s, becoming something of a culture hero to the entire 1960s counterculture (though Ginsberg was himself also known for his own hero worship of young folk singer Bob Dylan).
Howl is now considered one of the greatest works of twentieth-century American literature, but it met with considerable negative reaction in conservative, conformist 1950s America, mostly because of its frank sexual content. Upon its publication by San Francisco’s City Lights Press in the volume “Howl” and Other Poems, copies of the volume were seized, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, along with Shigeyoshi Murao, manager of the City Lights Bookstore, were brought up on charges of possessing and distributing obscene materials. In a 1957 trial, “Howl” was ruled not to be obscene, in one of the first of several trials that essentially removed all official censorship of literary works in America.
Ginsberg poetry is highly eccentric and wildly inventive, breaking with all notions of literary propriety. It is passionate and intense, often quite funny, though the humor is typically delivered in a mode of sarcasm. Despite the unconventional form of his poetry, though, Ginsberg carefully studied the work of his predecessors and was strongly influenced by some of them. The most important influence was probably William Carlos Williams, with whom he carried on a correspondence. There is a performative quality to Ginsberg’s poetry, and his readings of his own poetry (often modifying the contents from one reading to the next) were one of the reasons why he became so well known. You can hear him read “America” here:
Another very well-known poem published in “Howl” and Other Poems is “America,” which contains an especially clear statement of Ginsberg’s political attitudes, which again went very much against the grain of American society in the 1950s. However, Ginsberg’s politics drew even more attention in the 1960s, precisely because they were much more in step with the times during that period. Ginsberg was placed under constant surveillance by the FBI, which compiled an extensive dossier on his activities between 1963 and 1971, largely because of his active participation in the antiwar movement and other political protest movements of that time.
“America” is a long monologue addressed to a country he feels has hypocritically failed to live up to its own stated ideals, moving in materialistic and militaristic directions that are dehumanizing and self-destructive. As with most of Ginsberg’s poems, the tone is extremely personal; there seems to be no ironic gap between the speaker in the poem and Ginsberg himself. In addition to its criticism of the situation in mid-1950s America (a situation, he notes, that had driven fellow Beat writer William S. Burroughs to take refuge abroad in Tangier), the poem also includes a number of historical references to the suppression of left-wing politics in America earlier in the twentieth century. For example, he sentimentally remembers the “Wobblies,” a designation popularly applied to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labor union that was highly influential in the first years of the twentieth century but was violently suppressed in the years leading up to World War I. He notes his own upbringing in a communist family and defiantly refuses to disavow that upbringing, just as, elsewhere in the poem, he is unapologetic about his queer sexuality or his fondness for marijuana.
The poem also mentions several figures who were famously victimized by American bigotry, such as Sacco and Vanzetti (framed and unjustly executed in 1927 for a murder they did not commit, simply due to their radical political beliefs) and the Scottsboro Boys (nine black teenagers falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1931). All but one of the latter, incidentally, were convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries, though all were eventually exonerated, thanks mostly to legal support provided by the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The speaker also mentions Tom Mooney, a labor leader who was convicted of a bombing based on falsified evidence, subsequently spending over twenty years in prison before finally being pardoned in 1939. Finally, the speaker refers to America’s failure to come to the aid of the legally-elected government of Spain, which was overthrown by a fascist army backed by the German Nazis in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).
This poem is laced with sarcasm throughout, especially in the segment in which Ginsberg mocks the anti-Soviet hysteria then sweeping America. He notes, for example, that, based on viewing American television, one would conclude that America is in imminent danger of being invaded by Russians bent on stealing her resources. (Ginsberg’s mother, incidentally, had been born in Russia before emigrating to the United States.) Meanwhile, the poem notes the paranoia with which China is seen as a lurking danger, as well, while also mocking the racist component of this attitude toward China, something that has become even more of a problem in recent years.
However, lest the poem seem anti-American, it should also be noted that the rhetoric of this poem is actually quite complex. Like Whitman, for example, Ginsberg at times sees himself as synonymous with America, indicating that he identifies quite strongly with the nation and that his obvious anger is because certain forces then powerful in America had turned the country against its own principles. To complicate the rhetoric further, Ginsberg also uses figurative language (as poems generally do) to make points via statements that are not literally true. For example, at one point he states, “My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.” Ginsberg was certainly not a Catholic, and it is a safe bet that he did not desire to be president. The point here is that America claims to offer equal opportunities to all, yet many groups are excluded from the highest positions of power. Granted, the first Catholic president (John F. Kennedy) would be elected only four years after the poem was written—and the current U.S. president is a Catholic, as well. Still, Ginsberg was a queer man who was born Jewish and spent much of his life as a practicing Buddhist, and there has still never been a president who was queer or Jewish or Buddhist, much less a combination of all three.
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour and twentyfive-thousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles more so they’re all different sexes.
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother Bloor the Silk-strikers’ Ewig-Weibliche made me cry I once saw the Yiddish orator Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have been a spy.
America you don’t really want to go to war.
America its them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000), “We Real Cool” (1959)
Born in Topeka, Kansas, Gwendolyn Brooks moved with her family to Chicago when she was only six weeks old. She would call Chicago home the rest of her life. Initially supporting her writing by working as a typist, she was eventually invited to teach writing and literature at a number of American universities as her work gradually became better known. Meanwhile, she was also a wife and mother, in addition to her career as a poet. In 1950, Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her collection Annie Allen, thus becoming the first African American to win a Pulitzer. She won a number of other prestigious awards as well, and still stands as one of the best-known African American women poets.
Brooks’s best-known poem is the brief, snappy “We Real Cool”—a poem so well known that she sometimes complained that its popularity tended to obscure the rest of her work. Inspired by Brooks’s own observation of a number of black teenage boys playing pool in a pool hall, the poem features a speaker who attempts to capture what she imagines to be the boys’ sense of themselves, using jazz-like rhythms to suggest this sense both in words and in the sound of the words. (The rhythm is achieved largely through a line structure that sees each line ending, rather than beginning with “we,” while the rhymes are in the middle words of the lines, rather than the usual last words.) She imagines that they have dropped out of school (or were perhaps simply skipping school on this day); she imagines that they stay out late at night in their quest for coolness; she expects that they “strike straight,” which could refer either to their accuracy with a pool cue or to a more general tendency toward frank expression or even accurate punching in fights. The boys, the speaker imagines, “sing sin,” that is, they celebrate rule-breaking behavior. They “thin gin”—they drink alcohol, though underage, but probably water it down, either to have enough to go around or to weaken its effects, suggesting that they are not seasoned drinkers. One of the more obscure statements in the poem is “we jazz June,” which Brooks herself explained means that they brought joyfully transgressive behavior even to the most boring and conformist of times, the month of June. This meaning is certainly less than transparent, though, but ambiguity in meaning is particularly effective in this poem because it reminds us that the poem’s speaker is merely guessing at what these boys might think of themselves and doesn’t really know. The poem then takes a surprising turn at the end with the startling “we die soon,” which could be taken to suggest that their behavior is self-destructive and could lead them to early deaths. More likely, though, this ending is meant as a critique of a society that is inherently dangerous to young black men, an aspect of American life that has gained much greater public awareness in recent years.
We Real Cool
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We