Tuesday, February 06, 2018

I, Too, Am America by Langston Hughes

The Coretta Scott King Awards are being announced later than usual this year, so let’s look back to the 2013 award winning illustrator, Bryan Collier for his interpretation of the well-known poem by Langston Hughes. Collier explained in the end notes that he chose a Pullman porter to make specific the universal story in the poem. Porter for a sleeping car on an overnight train was one of the best jobs open to a black man in the Jim Crow era. Collier incorporated fascinating details like the porter sharing left behind magazines with his people along the route. As you enjoy Collier’s visual interpretation of the poem, you can listen to Langston Hughes read it.

The poem itself is now over ninety years old and quoted on the wall of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It encapsulates America’s racial history and hope. The darker brother, invisible in the kitchen, intends to have a seat at the table, and more – to be recognized as a beautiful part of America. Hughes intended to evoke Walt Whitman’s poem from the Civil War era, I Hear America Singing. A contemporary of Hughes, Countee Cullen responded differently in Yet Do I Marvel.
           Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
           To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

If you enjoy the blend of poetry and art in I, Too, Am America, follow it up with Rosa by Nikki Giovanni, also illustrated by Bryan Collier. Or look at a different Hughes poem, My People illustrated with photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr. 

Review by Carolyn Caywood, retired from VBPL


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