Thinking about the July 4 holiday just passed. In preparing my sermon for July 7, I discovered the connection between Langston Hughes' 1926 poem, "I, Too," and Walt Whitman's poem, "I Hear America Singing," written just before the Civil War. Even with their dated language, the conversation between these two great poems of the American spirit might still tell us something about us, even today. We, all, sing America.
Here's an excerpt from that July 7 sermon:
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
Those are the words of Walt Whitman, from 1860. It's his poem, "I Hear America Singing"
Whitman's been called the poet of democracy. Ezra Pound called him, "America's poet." He was devoted to understanding and perfecting our democracy. Some of his poetry sounds like a loving recognition of Americans and their spirit (our spirit). His vision included people excluded from power or scarred by violence yet still resilient in their own work to make America.
At one point, Whitman insisted that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." By that he seems to mean that like poetry, democracy tries to make a whole thing out of disconnected and imperfect parts, to make meaning from jumbled words, and to make freedom from people living many different lives. And so poets make the nation by their labor of words. I suppose preachers do too. And we all make the nation by our varied carols, and our dreams—sooner than laws, or politics, or celebrity, or official kinds of power.
Whitman's disdain for slavery was an embodiment of this belief, that while America is human through and through, it is also chastened and inspired by truths beyond itself.
And so 86 years after Whitman published "I Hear America Singing," in 1926, another great poet—this one at the center of the Harlem Renaissance—named Langston Hughes, directly responded to Walt Whitman's, "I Hear America Singing."
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.
~~ Langston Hughes, 1926
Let us hear the song and create new harmonies.
Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Can be found online at www.poetryfoundation.org.
Walt Whitman, "I Hear America Singing," from Selected Poems (1991), originally in Leaves of Grass. Can be found online at www.poetryfoundation.org
See David Ward, "What Langston Hughes’ Powerful Poem 'I, Too' Tells Us About America’s Past and Present," https://www.smithsonianmag.com.