Out of the Kitchen:
An Examination of the American Dream in the poetry of Langston Hughes
The Harlem Renaissance gave a voice to many gifted artists, writers, and poets. Perhaps, for the first time, people were using the arts on a broad scale to give national and international voice to the long-silenced personal and political struggles of America’s ethnic other, specifically the African-American. Among the many gifted poets of the movement, Langston Hughes is, easily, one of the most recognizable and influential. Although his poems are lyrically beautiful, many of them also admonish a mythologized, free America as little more than a quaint, and for many, wholly unattainable model. Two of Hughes’ best known works, “Let American Be America Again” and “I, Too” speak directly to the grotesque imbalance of freedoms and rights in the U.S.. Using a number of literary devices, Hughes creates poems that are as poetically striking as they are politically and socially defiant. Through precise word choice, metaphor, and physical structure, Hughes creates multi-dimensional speakers who address two separate and unequal audiences. In these anthem-like poems, the speakers expound on their overwhelming desire for equality, unity, and freedom by addressing the short-comings of a capitalist system that makes commodities out of oppressed individuals and populations. Hughes’s poems focus on the American dream, a fantasy that is off-limits to anyone on the wrong side of the color line or income gap; however, despite their scathing criticisms, a patriotic hopefulness resides at the core of these two poems.
The speakers demonstrate voice and tone through precise word choice and juxtapose the fantasy American dream against the reality of racial and class inequality and injustice. The speakers take on a collective consciousness to discuss and deconstruct the mythologized American dream. A militant anger exists in the speakers’ tones; however, they also look optimistically forward to a day when equality and the rights and freedoms of “The land that never has been yet” (Let America 63) are inclusive and available to all people. Hughes’s use of the dining room and the kitchen as an extended metaphor for slavery and the atrocities committed under Jim Crow in “I, Too” show an expectant speaker imagining that, filled with culture and knowledge, the African-American population will soon take its rightful place at America’s dinner table of freedoms, “I'll be at the table / When company comes.” (9-10) Not only does the speaker, acting as a collective consciousness, imagine a future where African-Americans are afforded the same rights and opportunities as their oppressors, he sees a day when the oppressors are shamed by their tyrannical actions. Although the majority of “I, Too,” is almost naively hopeful in tone, there is a profound shift in in the third stanza “Besides, / They'll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed--” (15-18). The speaker’s use of the word “Besides,” (15)...