Comparing “I, Too” Langston Hughes and “If We Must Die” Claude McKay

Langston Hughes is celebrated. He has been touted as the who best represented the Negro race with his works. But more than a novelist, Langston Hughes was also a poet credited with the ubiquitous poems such I, Too Sing America. Langston Hughes is considered as the “poet laureate of the Negro race” who truly represented the Negro race in his literature and perhaps can be considered as one of the most original Afro American writers. There is however another Harlem Renaissance writer whose contribution to the Negro struggle is as significant as Langston Hughes. He was Claude Mackay who composed the poem “If We Must Die” which was used as battle outcry during the Harlem Renaissance.

Both poems contained vivid imagery about the plight of the Negro to make their cause as touching as possible to the reader. In Langston Hughes I, Too, the poem work as a personal narration of his plight as a Negro where his fellow Negroes can relate to. The poem work by narrating a seemingly personal experience where “They send me to eat in the kitchen/
When company comes”. But making the most out of it to cope just like most black people that “ I laugh/And eat well/And grow strong”. The wordings of the poem were deliberately made in the first person to make the poem sound more personal and thus, more effective to agitate the Negroes to assert their equality. He provided hope that “Tomorrow/ [he’ll] be at the table/ when company comes” to embolden the reader that their aspiration to be equal or to be at the table with everyone else is possible. In a way, the poem was composed to agitate the Negroes that their place is not in the kitchen but rather in the table, a simile to illustrate the injustice they are in that they have to group together and fight it.

In general, the poem is lyrical, brisk, precise, simple and easy to understand so that it will be easy to reach every Negro who has little education during that time. This poem may be a bitter description of the relationship between two individuals [master and slave] but Langston Hughes did not call for animosity against the white race nor was virulent. But rather, this sardonic narration as a result of his profound sense of humanity as he pursued an idea to raise the Negro to be equally evident with the metaphor of the poem from eating in the kitchen to the dinner table.

McKay, however, had a different approach compared to Langston Hughes even if their intention is similar to liberating the Negroes from bondage. McKay was direct while Hughes was subtle. Hughes did not advocate violence in the poem I, Too but McKay was advocating for a battle against their oppressors. While Langston Hughes wrote in the first person, Mackay wrote in the second person and used the literary technique and device of simile to emphasize his point. He made a comparison of their plight to “hogs” in the opening line which obviously is designed to agitate the reader because Negroes are human beings and not animals like hogs. He then proceeded to use animal references to support his advocacy to end their plight. Words that is associated to animals like “hunted, penned, monster, mad and hungry dogs, cowardly pack” littered the poem particularly in line one where it opened in a hyperbole “If we must die, let it not be like hogs”. This is an obvious exaggeration of anger to make the call for battle easier.

He used heavy comparison to the animals so stress that the situation of the Negroes is similar to animals. And being treated like that of animals, they should fight for their right to be treated as human beings. Slavery is dehumanizing and it should be ended and if they have to fight to end, they should.
The conclusion Mackays and Hughes’s poems were also starkly different. Hughes just wanted to be treated as an equal, to eat on the dinner table “when the company comes” that he too, is America. Mackays, however, is literally calling for a war when he asked the rhetorical question in his conclusion “What though before us lies the open grave?” This passage was intended to demystify death, not to fear it because we are all going to die anyway. And as a slave, what they have to lose anyway? This is intended to embolden the Negroes to fight by telling them not to fear death. This is also a call for urgent action because their present lot awaits nothing unless they stand up and fight to become human beings again and not as “hogs”.

 

Works Cited
Hughes, Langston. “I, Too.”Poemhunter.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.
McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die.”Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmM

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