Blogger: Jacqueline Ma
I was born and raised in a middle class suburb right outside of Seattle in the United States of America. Unfortunately, I lived and breathed suburbia syndrome because of my environment. As a Chinese-American, I was here because my mother was able to escape the Vietnam War and make her way into this country as a refugee. Growing up, I lived within the walls of the “Bellevue bubble” and went to public schools that were mostly comprised of Asians and Whites, with a few specks of African American and Latino mixed in there. I believed myself to be the definition of a white washed individual, because by definition I was not proud of my heritage or my culture and I wanted so very deeply to assimilate and fit in with the rest of my peers who identified with the Caucasian race. It was not until I graduated from high school and came to the University of Washington that my perspective was profoundly changed.
When I chose a topic for this blog post, I chose something I believed myself to be extremely passionate about. As a recently declared American Ethnic Studies major, I found myself enveloped in racial equality, learning about societal problems and wanting to analyze cultural differences in not only my courses, but in life as well. I was lucky enough to stumble upon a poem written by Langston Hughes that was a passive response to Walt Whitman’s Poem, “I Hear America Singing”. Hughes’ poem, “I, Too” was published in 1945 during an extremely eventful year, that included the death of Roosevelt, the beginning of the Cold War and the end of WWII (State Department History). By the end of World War II, America was feeling the victory of the Japanese surrender and this created an amplified sense of nationalism and patriotism that spread throughout the country. In Walt Whitman’s poem, “I Hear America Singing” Whitman lists the hard-working members of society, “mechanics… carpenter[s]… boatm[e]n” (Whitman lines 2,4,7). This line describes the unity in the Americans as different components of the social hierarchy. Ultimately, Hughes responds to this in the first line of his poem by stating “I, too, sing America” (line 1). Hughes is backhandedly saying that there is a place for blacks among the rest of the Americans, although it does not seem like the treatment they are receiving is contingent to that.
I felt that this poem was mainly addressing the inequalities between the blacks and whites, especially when Hughes expressed “I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen” (lines 2, 3). This deeply describes the divide in America during the post-Emancipation era, when blacks were no longer slaves but were considered a part of society. In 1896, “the Plessy decision set the precedent that “separate” facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were ‘equal’” (PBS). This meant that although blacks were no longer slaves, it did not mean that they were no longer treated as slaves. The segregation doctrine affected most walks of life for African Americans including “many areas of public life, such as restaurants, theaters, restrooms, and public schools” (PBS). This meant that blacks became inferior, although that was not the goal of creating separate but equal. “They send me to the kitchen/When company comes” is being described as how men are being treated as animals and that only animals and servants ate in the kitchen (line 3, 4). This showed the oppression that the black men had to suffer through. This created an oppression filled atmosphere and eventually led to the continued segregation of African Americans and whites.
Although, the oppression is prevalent in society, the tone of the poem eventually reaches a turning point. Hughes changes his previous message and establishes a point of optimism that will ultimately result in the reader detecting a slow societal change that is occurring. “I’ll be at the table/When company comes” displays the optimism that is beginning to sprout in his mind (Line 9, 10). It demonstrates the complete theme that Hughes was going for in respond to Whitman’s poem, which is an encouragement of showing the black persona exists in society whether whites liked it or not. Equality was supposedly on the brink of birth, which is completely true, because when Hughes wrote, “I, Too” it was published in 1945, which is approximately twenty years before the civil rights movement take over that completely changed the history of segregation in the United States of America.
The history of the United States according to slavery, emancipation, oppression of the African American race, segregation, and ultimately the civil rights movement gave me perspective into how White America was truly not a place for people of color. I was able to connect with this because of the history that Asian Americans have had in the United States for the many decades that they have been here. The inequality that many Asian Americans have faced are nowhere near the level of slavery that African Americans had to go through, but it seems to be a similar occurrence in both of the two ethnicities. Many have been segregated due to their skin color and only their skin color.
Culturally, this poem is of quite significance because it describes a large period of time that ultimately contributed to an entirety of a race’s future. It showed the definitive answer of what African Americans should do in the face of adversity by bringing optimism to the community affected but this tragic societal problem. The poem addressed many issues that were plaguing the African American community before the time of equality and social justice, but ultimately left readers with a sense of hope.
Recently, there has been much talk about University of Washington students standing in solidarity with the students of Mizzou and whether or not the University of Washington is a safe space for people of color. This directly relates to the poem because our campus has a statue of George Washington right in the front of the school. The true man who stands atop the mount overlooking our school “was a slave owner” (KUOW). Many feel as if this “makes the campus ‘a very daunting place because you’re walking into a predominantly white institution and you’re already starting to face hostility’” (KUOW). This shows that this societal issue is still a problem at hand because it is happening even in this day and age. I am confident that although this issue many not be solved very quickly, there is the possibility that it will be solved. Hopefully, one day at the UW, students of all colors will feel safe on campus and will be left with an illuminating piece of optimism that will allow them feel as if Hughes does and that is “I, too, am America” (line 18).
All in all, as an Asian American and a person of color, I see that there is always progression to all problems. There must be a push that allowed the ball to start rolling and eventually, we will get to the point where all is equal.
Hughes, Langston, Arnold Rampersad, and David E. Roessel. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf, 1994. Print.
Radke, Bill, Andy Hurst, and Amina Al-Sadi. “Is The UW A Safe Space For Students Of Color?” Is The UW A Safe Space For Students Of Color? KUOW, 16 Nov. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Whitman, Walt. “I Hear America Singing.” – Poets.org. Poets.org, 1997. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Wormser, Richard. “Plessy V. Ferguson (1896).” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
“1945–1952 – Milestones – Office of the Historian.” 1945–1952 – Milestones – Office of the Historian. US State Department, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.