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Langston Hughes, “I, Too” and “The Weary Blues,” 1920 and 1925

Use this Primary Source with the Andy Razaf (lyrics), Thomas “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks (score), “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” Jazz and the Radio, 1929 Primary Source and the The Blues and the Great Migration Lesson to show students how migration influence art and literature through the Harlem Renaissance movement.

Introduction

Poverty and violence spurred many African Americans to leave the South in the early twentieth century. In the North, African Americans still faced discrimination, but many found industrial jobs and some improvement in their standard of living. In the 1920s, vibrant African American neighborhoods grew up in cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and, particularly, the Harlem area of New York City. As Harlem’s population swelled to 200,000 by 1930, an intellectual and artistic explosion there became known as the Harlem Renaissance. One of the most well-known writers of the Harlem Renaissance was Langston Hughes. Hughes was a poet, novelist, and playwright known for his depictions of African American life. Hughes was the first to use jazz dialect and rhythms in his work, and his poems were addressed to and captured the experiences of his people. Hughes began writing poetry in high school and published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926 at the age of 24 years.

Sourcing Questions

  1. What caused many African Americans to leave the south in the early twentieth century?
  2. What was the Harlem Renaissance?
  3. What characteristics defined Langston Hughes’s poetry?

Source A: “I, Too,” 1920

Text
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.
Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

 

Source B: “The Weary Blues,” 1925

Vocabulary Text
syncopated (adj): marked by syncopation, where strong beats become weak and vice versa; syncopation is a defining characteristic of jazz music

Lenox Avenue: the primary north–south route through Harlem
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway . . .
He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.“

And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

Comprehension Questions

  1. How would you characterize the speaker’s reaction to the discrimination he faces?
  2. What is the message of this poem?
  3. Why do you think Hughes used the phrase “I, too, sing America” in the first line?
  4. Compare these lyrics of the old man’s song with the lyrics in the previous stanza.

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Explain how these poems offer the reader a glimpse into the experience of African Americans in the 1920s.
  2. Explain two examples in these poems that demonstrate Hughes was influenced by other artistic achievements of the Harlem Renaissance in his work.