In 1932 African-Americans were second class citizens. Thousands were just beginning the trek from the Deep South to what they considered the upward mobility and aspirational flexibility of the North's manufacturing and broader job base. In the search for the warmth of other suns, many found their way to black enclaves like New York City's Harlem. It is there that one of the most prolific poets Langston Hughes, penned one of his most famous poems, "I, Too, Sing America."
In eighteen lines Hughes captured the hope of being visible and being seen as a viable equal citizen. A longing blacks had held since Emancipation.
"...I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes."
Hughes embraced the eternal prayer that one day, maybe tomorrow, his race will be able to sit at the table. He held firm to the belief in common human respect and that the blinded eye of America would one day judge him by his character. But it is his last few thoughts which are the most powerful.
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America."
In these four lines he summarizes the angst of the quest. That he and indeed the entire race is not something to be discarded because he, too -- they, too, am America. The use of too is an inclusive one. Quite simply, blacks in America are just as American as the whites who ignored and deprived them of basic rights.
The wailing cry, "I, too, am America" has been echoed throughout American history. It was heard through out the Civil Rights Movement and ever since.
"I, too, am America."
Nearly eighty years later the nation has its first African-American President. Yet, Barack Obama is still haunted by the same echo. After nearly three years of having his very citizenship questioned, the White House finally asked the state health officials in Hawaii to release his long-form birth certificate. Nevermind the fact the form released during the 2008 Presidential campaign legally served the same purpose. Nevermind that U.S. law says no matter where he was born if one of his parents is a U.S. Citizen he therefore is a "natural born citizen" and meets the basic qualification to be President.
Blinded by political hatred and veiled in the most vile of racism, a significant subsection of the American population believe the President to be unamerican, foreign, inadequate and illegitimate to even be eligible to sit in the Oval Office.
During a brief press conference, Mr. Obama called the issue silly and those who bathed in the so called "birther" conspiracy carnival barkers. No doubt chief among them is the often bankrupt, reality show star Donald Trump. For the past few weeks Trump has convinced republicans he might run for president and convinced the media to allow him to spew falsehoods about the President's citizenship.
But the release of the long-form certificate forced Trump to go uglier -- using code words to suggest the President wasn't qualified to go to Columbia and later Harvard Law School.
A verbal attempt to send Mr. Obama to the kitchen when company comes.
It is beyond shame that the President of the United States has to stand in front of the country to tell us, He, Too, is America.
At the end of the day there will be some, the President said so himself, that will not believe him. One of those is probably Republican State Representative Sally Kern of Oklahoma. The state's House just approved a bill that would end affirmative action in the state. In defense of the bill Rep. Kern stood on the floor and said blacks are in prison and make less money because they don't work as hard as whites.
“We have a high percentage of blacks in prison, and that’s tragic, but are they in prison just because they are black or because they don’t want to study as hard in school? I’ve taught school, and I saw a lot of people of color who didn’t study hard because they said the government would take care of them.”
She has since apologized for the comments but what drove her to speak them in the first place? If one didn't know better, you would swear this is 1961 and not 2011.
Another lawmaker who supported the end of affirmative action tried to make the point that those policies forced blacks to feel like they had to work twice as hard as whites in order to advance.
Nevermind that many upward mobile blacks taught this to their children long before Nixon created the policy in the 1970s. It was not affirmative action which created this belief, it was the echo of the cry.
"I, too, am America."
Hughes thought that those who didn't see him as equal, who questioned his legitimacy as not only a citizen but a human being would one day change and be ashamed that they made him invisible.
He pinned his hope on a faith in the decency of people to change.
Many have. Many African-Americans are at the table. But in the quiet moments of our daily lives the echo can still be heard.
"I, too, am America."
When the cry goes silent, only then will we have made true progress.
Kaptiol Hill encourages readers to leave comments.