I, Too, Am America

I was at the Harvard Book Store on Sunday.  All right, being honest, I was there on Thursday, but completely lost my mind and forgot the presents I needed to get while I was there.  So I had to go back today and get the presents (two copies of Instructions for two little girls I’ll be seeing over Thanksgiving).  And here’s the thing: while I was there, I noticed they had a beautiful display of books by minority groups out there, including quite an extraordinary illustrated edition of Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too.” And I am here to tell you that I, Too, Am America, poem by Langston Hughes, illustrations by Bryan Collier, is heart-wrenching and inspirational.

I, Too, Am America.jpg

I hesitated a lot over this post, because what can I tell you about Langston Hughes or his poetry?  Being perfectly frank here, does the world really need another earnest post by a rather privileged white person about a distinctly, famously black poem?  I’m too Canadian, too white, too Jewish, and too privileged to analyze Langston Hughes for you, so if you have any curiosity about him, then I’m just going to point you to this excellent, nuanced, and fascinating article and that should give you plenty to think about.  For myself, I’m not going to pretend I can tell you much about Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance, or the black experience in America.

What I do know something about, though, is the world of kids’ books; I know a good book when I see one, and this one is beautiful.  Two things surprised me about it: a) how very well Bryan Collier’s precise vision worked with the open-endedness of the poem; b) how much the Changeling liked it, even at age three.

Let’s take a look at the poem, shall we?  It never hurt anyone to pause and read a good poem, and it will help us to understand the story Bryan Collier tells with his images:

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.

You see what I mean about “open-endedness”: this poem could tell any number of people’s stories, which, in fact, is one of its beauties.  It could (and this is as close as I’ll come to analyzing the poem itself) tell the literal story of someone sent to the kitchen, or it could tell the figurative story of someone sent to the kitchen; it could be speaking directly to you, to one person, or it could be speaking to a crowd, a group, a class of people.  Bryan Collier hears it speaking to, as he describes it, “the Pullman porters, African-American men who worked as caretakers to wealthy white passengers aboard luxury trains.  This practice began after legal slavery ended and lasted until the 1960s…”  And so our focus, as we flip through his illustrations, narrows from a story which could belong to many people to the story of the Pullman porters, catering to a white elite lifestyle which they could never reach.

And yet– as the poem tells us– they can and will break free from the unjust world in which they live.  Bryan Collier shows us in his beautiful and compelling mixed media illustrations the story moving through time and space with the train.  We begin with the train, just the train.  Then comes the porter’s face, veiled by an American flag.  We move, along with the poem, into the kitchen, seeing the black cooks hard at work.  And then, “I laugh, / And eat well” features a glowing image of the porter filling the foreground with his energy, while those he looks after sit muted in the background.  We then see the porters, and I quote Bryan Collier again from his Illustrator’s Note, “gathering newspapers, magazines, blues and jazz albums, and other items left behind by traveling passengers and then, from the back of the last train car, tossing this bundle in the air, acting as a conduit of culture, a distributor of knowledge to those who couldn’t afford these items on their own.”

In Collier’s illustrations, however, these cultural pieces don’t fall down, but flow outward, through time and space, all the way to the present, reaching audiences far and wide.  “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes.”  They flow from the old luxury trains to the modern subway train and, on that train, a boy peering through the same flag which had veiled the porter’s face at the opening of the book, looking and pushing through to a more hopeful future.

This book is both educational and inspirational: it taught me about Pullman porters, a story I’d never heard before.  My daughter, as she grows older and we continue to read this book together, will know their story.  I like to think that Langston Hughes would be a little bit proud of that, and that he’d be happy that children would learn to see a story through his words, and identify with it.  And, perhaps, reading this poem, seeing this story, they’ll learn that we are all America.

Altogether, this is a beautiful book.  I wasn’t sure how Langston Hughes’ poem could be rendered for children (and, well, I still am not sure what my three-year-old gets out of it!), but Bryan Collier has done a magnificent job.  He paints a story which flows with as much energy as Hughes’ words do, and together they are a powerhouse of warmth, understanding, and, I truly hope, empowerment.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t think I’m the right person to comment on the Harlem Renaissance or to analyze Langston Hughes’s poems, but I do know how to recognize a good picture book.

And this, too, is one.

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