On Modernist Themes in “I, Too” and “Democracy” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes is one of the most famous New Negro Movement poets. Hughes may be considered a Modernist poet, but he was unlike many of his peers in terms of ambiguity and uncertainty. In fact, his work is quite straightforward.

Still, the themes which Hughes uses in his poetry, such as alienation, dislocation, and inequality, are very much Modernist themes. Also, like in many Modernist poems, Hughes writes his poetry in free verse without a rhyme scheme. He also dealt solely with the reality of African-American life at the time, portraying it as accurately as he possibly could for the white audiences to which he wrote.

In his poem, “I, too,” Hughes writes of a black person who’s cast aside from white society, dealing with themes of alienation and dislocation. “I am the darker brother,” Hughes wrote, “They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes.” But, in this poem, Hughes also shows a great deal of hope for African-Americans and a belief they would be more than able to come out into the open and express their humanity. Hughes writes, 

I’ll sit at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
’Eat in the kitchen,’
Then.” (8-14)

Hughes makes very clear that African-Americans should assert themselves and make white folks realize that they’re equal as human beings. “Besides,” Hughes wrote, “They’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed.” Another interesting part of that poem is in how he says, “I, too, am America.” 

This establishment of identity as an American hearkens back to Walt Whitman. Whether this phrase was inspired by Whitman or not, it certainly brings up quite an interesting comparison between Whitman and Hughes. In some way, they would seem to be rather similar poets. With that comparison made, it could be said that Langston Hughes was to the New Negro Movement as Whitman was to all American poetry.

Modernist poetry was new in both the individual themes it covered and how the poetry itself was written. It also was original in the essence of what was being written. Certainly, poetry before the Movement had never been written like this by an African-American to a white audience. 

Though most of Hughes’ poems are clearly written about African-Americans, the wonderful poem “Democracy” could be said to represent any minority. It could also stand for anyone in the United States denied the freedoms granted everyone in the text of the Constitution. Hughes makes very clear that freedom is something that must be fought for. The poem shouldn’t only be considered as a rallying cry for African-Americans, but as a reminder to all Americans how special and important freedom is. 

Americans today still take their freedoms so much for granted, just like many white Americans did in his time. Both poems, “I, Too” and “Democracy,“ should stand as reminders. “Democracy” in particular is clearly a Modernist poem because of how it deals with those present-day realities of segregation and assumed white supremacy. This is where Hughes differs most from Whitman. Hughes tackles reality head on with no pretty words to dress it up. He tells you like it is, a little uncommon for most Modernist writers, but certainly not for those in his movement.

Originally written as a college essay in April 2006, and revised for the Internet in September 2020.

My own poetry collection, “Take My Hand And Lead Me Through the Fire,” is available on Barnes and Noble.

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.

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