Reading Hughes and McKay, I was strongly reminded of DuBois’ concept of the black double-consciousness, and the pressure/desire to have both a black and an ‘American’ identity. For example, in “America” (p. 2147), McKay seems to be adhering to more traditional, ‘white’ ideas of poetry (specifically the Shakesperian sonnet), but the poem itself is strongly tied to black identity issues. The poet suggests that he’s very much tied to America, as when he says that “Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,” but he doesn’t shy away from acknowledging America as an enemy; America “sinks into my throat with her tiger’s tooth,” and the poet is “a rebel” confronting “a king in state.” Judging from McKay’s poetry, and this poem in particular, he largely confronts the “double-consciousness” issue by aligning himself primarily with blacks, and by viewing ‘America’ as too predominantly white to ever welcome him in.
In Langston Hughes’ work, though, most poems seem to revolve around finding a place for the black identity within the American identity; where McKay often seems to suggest that the two are unreconcilable, Hughes seems to be taking after Whitman and framing himself as a new voice for America. For instance, we can look at “I, Too” on p. 2266, where Hughes imagines a near future where he, a black poet, will be part of the American ‘family’; “Tomorrow, / I’ll be at the table / When company comes. / … Besides, / They’ll see how beautiful I am / And be ashamed– / I, too, am America.” Or, looking at “Note on Commercial Theatre” on p. 2269, Hughes begins by lamenting the white theft and corruption of black culture, but then says, “But someday somebody’ll / Stand up and talk about me, / And write about me– / Black and beautiful– / And sing about me, / And put on plays about me! / I reckon it’ll be / Me myself! / Yes, it’ll be me.” Or again in “Theme for English B”, where on p. 2271 Hughes reflects that “You are white– / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American.” Hughes is no less concerned than McKay about preserving black identity, but Hughes seems to be just as concerned about recognizing how much blacks are already a part of ‘America’.
With this in mind, could we say that Hughes’ poems more optimistic than McKay’s? If so, what difference in the two poets’ worldviews accounts for the optimism? If not, in what way is Hughes still pessimistic about the future?