Langston Hughes: Comparison and Contrasting Essay
by Feross Aboukhadijeh
Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of African-American literature and artistic forms in Manhattan during the 1920s. Not only did his writing promote African-American culture, but it sought to bring attention to the plight of the African-Americans suffering injustice and repression. His poems "I, Too" and "Theme for English B" both advanced his political views of equal civil rights and treatment under the law for African-Americans. Both poems use first-person voices; however the "I" is different for each poem, in order to fulfill Hughes' purpose for the poem.
In Hughes' poem "I, Too," the speaker is not an individual as the word "I" implies. In fact, the "I" represents the entirety of African-Americans living in the United States. That Hughes writes "I am the darker brother" instead of "we are the darker brothers" is no accident (2). The connotation of the word "I" as opposed to "we" is that of a lone individual, defenseless and outnumbered. The speaker says "They send me to eat in the kitchen," reinforcing the one-versus-all mentality that Hughes is trying to convey in this poem (3). "We" and "they," give a stronger, more united connotation than "I" does. In this poem, "I" is used to connote weakness, and isolation. As used in this poem, the first-person voice highlights the weakness of the African-American people. However, this is not the only way that Hughes uses "I" in his poetry.
On the other hand, Hughes' poem "Theme for English B," uses the first-person voice for an entirely different effect. In this poem, the "I" is an individual student. The poem is written like a narrative: "I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem" (7). Unlike the first poem, "I" is used here to connote strength and singularity. The speaker, an African-American student given an English writing assignment, engages his teacher in an intelligent, even pointed dialog. Hughes artistically makes use of the first-person point of view to enhance the effect of the story. By using words like "I" and "them", "me" and "you," the speaker is able to point out the differences between himself and his teacher. One passage in particular stands out for its incessant juxtaposition of the words "you" and "me":
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me— (31-38).
Not only does this highlight the differences between the speaker and teacher, but it puts the speaker in a commanding position. The fact that an African-American individual is writing something controversial, and making critical remarks of his teacher—and in such an eloquent way—is a sign of strength and source of pride.
Although these poems both make use of first-person voices, they each make use of voice to different ends. Nonetheless, both poems draw attention to the plight of the African-American people, albeit in different manners. Both poems cry out for civil rights and equality in a time where African-Americans were treated neither civilly nor equally.
Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Compare and Contrast Essay - "Langston Hughes"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/compare-contrast-langston-hughes/>.
Let's talk about compare/contrast essays. Now, I find these to be some of the most difficult types of essays to write because it's hard to know where you're going and exactly how you're going to tell the similarities and differences between two things. So a couple of vocabulary things to straighten out first. When you're given an essay, if you're asked just to compare, all they want to know is the similarities, so compare means how they're the same. If you're asked to contrast two things, then you're being asked to tell people how they are different. So just be aware, when you're doing compare/contrast, sometimes you may be asked to compare or contrast, sometimes you may be asked to do both. So you've got to really be aware of your prompt there.
Here are the steps that I tend to go through when I'm working compare/contrast; the first thing that I do is select my topics and make sure I understand the task. So that is selecting which two things I'm going to use in my essay and then understanding am I being asked to compare, contrast or do both of those. So that's the first important step. And then the next step is to pre-write and develop categories. So obviously if we're talking about how things are similar and different, we are going to start categorizing the ways that they are similar or different. For instance, if we are comparing pizzas, we might say crust is one category that we're going to look at, sauce might be another and the variety of toppings might be another. So you can start thinking about what those categories should be.
My two favorite modes of pre-writing for compare/contrast is a Venn diagram and you may remember that from math class, the two circles that run together, you can put topic one here, topic two here and then how they're different in here and how they're similar in the middle, so that's one. I'm also a chart person so I don't mind chart especially if I've got a lot of categories and my chart might look something like this and I will have a row for each particular category. So crust, sauce and then I divide it down the middle and I seal those in. So it depends on how you like to look at things, I tend to be a little bit more organized so I like the chart the best but after I've got all these ideas down here, now I want to develop a thesis. And this is really the critical part in compare/contrast because it's really easy to say, "Well, Monical's pizza has thin crust and Giodonalds pizza has thick crust, but you want to make sure that you're answering the 'so what?' question. So you've got to come to some sort of conclusion, it's not just about saying how things are similar or how they are different but why is that important. So maybe Giodonalds is a better place to entertain people or to take people from out of town because you can get thin crust pizza anywhere. Whatever it is you've got to come to that conclusion so you can insert it in your thesis and then after that you've got to think about how you're going to organize your essay. And let's take a look at the two different ways that you can organize a compare/contrast essay.
Now, the first one is point by point. And essentially what that means is it's going to be guided by those categories that you created. So you're going to have multiple sections of your paper; one for each of the categories that you have and in each section you're going to use examples from both topics. So you might talk about crust here, and in this paragraph or set of paragraphs you're going to talk about the crust at Giodonalds and you're going to talk about the crust at Monical's. And then you move on to the next category and so on and so forth until you've talked about all your categories and given all your examples. The important thing to remember if you choose point by point is that you're going to want to make sure you do analysis within each category; so once you talk about crust, you're going to have to come to a conclusion about crust, once you talk about sauce, come to that conclusion that all goes back to your thesis. So the analysis goes throughout.
Now, some of you guys may choose block formatting. And block formatting simply means that it's guided by topic rather than category. So you're going to start with an introduction and then you're going to introduce topic one. So in this case it might be Monical's, which is my favorite kind of pizza. And what you're going to do in this area, and it could consist of multiple paragraphs, is you're going to give multiple examples from just that one topic. So the first part of my paper is going to be focused on Monical's whereas the second will be focused on Giodonalds, and I'm going to give multiple examples about Giodonalds here. One thing to know then is because you're not doing much analysis inside these paragraphs because you're sticking to just one topic, you're conclusion has got to include your analysis where you're really coming down to that 'so what?' question you're answering now, the one that you answered in your thesis statement you're repeating down here. So those are the two ways to organize compare/contrast. Make sure again that you understand the task, know are you being asked to compare or contrast or do both and hopefully this will help you get started.