Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes are two of the most recognized African American poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel” and Langston Hughes’ “I, Too” are comparable poems in that their similar themes are representational of the authors’ personal tribulations of racial inequality. By comparing these two poems, we get a glimpse of the reality of the injustices of racism during the 1920’s by two prominent Black poets.
Cullen and Hughes were born within a year of each other, and consequently wrote these poems in the same year (1925). This is significant because it reflects the time in which racial inequality was prominent. Both poets were struggling with their emotions of being African American minorities in a society of White superiority. Their poems reflect the injustice of racism, which is especially revealed in Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too”.
Most poems are filled with symbolism and abstract ideas, and “I, Too” is an example of such. This poem does not rhyme, nor meter patter truly be measured. In order to understand and grasp the meaning behind this poem, it needs to be read a few times. Sometimes certain aspects of a poem can be overlooked. For example, in the first line of the poem, “I, too, sing America” (line 1), Hughes cleverly uses an allusion as he is referring to Walt Whitman’s, “Song of Myself”, which entails similar themes. In Hughes’ poem, the speaker is addressing the country as a whole. Hughes’ use of excellent language and vivid imagery effectively expresses the speaker’s feelings towards racism.
This poem explores the injustices of racism through the eyes of a black servant working for a white family. He tells us that he is sent to the kitchen when company comes. Every time he is sent away, instead of demonstrating anger, he laughs. This demonstrates that the speaker is a strong character with self poise. Hughes’ uses metaphor when he says “tomorrow” (line 8). He is indicating that the word “tomorrow” implies the future. He has faith that in the course of time, everyone will become equal, “Tomorrow, /I’ll be at the table /When company comes. /Nobody’ll dare/Say to me, /”Eat in the kitchen,”/Then.” (lines 8-14). The speaker then explains that America will be ashamed of having discriminated against him and other African Americans. The point that Hughes is trying to make clear is that African Americans are Americans too, thus they should not be discriminated against for the color of their skin.
The themes represented in Hughes’ poems are similar to those exemplified in Countee Cullen’s poem, “Yet Do I Marvel”. However, a major difference between the poems lies in the format. Cullen’s poem is a sonnet, with a rhyming scheme of ABAB BCBC DD EE FF GG (every other line rhymes, with the exception of the last two which rhyme consecutively). The natural flow of this poem helps us (the reader) become more engaged in Cullen’s anguish filled portrayal of racial injustices.
Like Hughes’ poem, Cullen’s poem is also about the battle of racial identity, yet in addition, he uses religion and mythology to further express the speaker’s struggle with racial injustices. Although the theme of racial inequality is common in both poems, Cullen’s poem focuses more on the speaker’s continual reference to religion and the justification of Gods will. Unlike the hope that the speaker explicated in Hughes’ poem, the speaker in Cullen’s poem starts out having faith in God, “I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,” (line 1). However, he later contradicts his faith in God due to the hardships of discrimination that African Americans endured in the last lines of the poem, “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: /To make a poet black, and bid him sing!” (lines 13-14).
We see the speaker’s lack of faith in God throughout the poem, which emphasizes his frustration and affliction with having to endure the everyday struggles of being discriminated against for being black. He uses mythology to further depreciate God’s actions by disagreeing with His punishments, “…declare/ If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus/ To Struggle up a never-ending stair.” (lines 6-8). The narrator is essentially symbolizing that God’s punishments are unfair cruelty, not only towards figures from Greek mythology, but towards him as well. The speaker considers God’s actions to be unreasonable, and we see this in his bitter words, “Inscrutable His ways are, and immune/ To catechism by a mind too strewn” (lines 9-10).
The comparison of Cullen’s “Yet do I Marvel” and Hughes’ “I, Too” lies strongly in the last two lines of Cullen’s poem. He finally tells us, straightforward, where his animosity lies. In the last two lines, he vehemently tells us that he finds it unfair that because he is a black poet, his voice will not be heard; he will be ignored and pushed aside, just like the speaker in Hughes’ poem. However, the two poems also contrast with each other in that Cullen’s poem concludes with the speaker reiterating his unequivocal feelings of inferiority and lack of faith. Hughes’ poem closes in a more positive manner wherein the speaker asserts his faith and pride in declaring his right to be treated equal.
Even with all of the contrasting aspects of these two poems, they do share a principle theme of racial inequality. Additionally, in these two poems Hughes and Cullen were addressing the mass society. They wanted to voice their concerns with racial discrimination. With Hughes’ use of vivid imagery and Cullen’s use of symbolism, they collectively utilized the art of poetry to effectively illustrate and express personal hardships of African Americans.