Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri to Carrie Mercer Langston and James Nathaniel Hughes. Both Langston’s paternal grandmother and grand father were the children of white, male slave owners and their slaves (one of which is claimed to be related to statesman Henry Clay), and his maternal grandmother was of African-American, English, French, and Native-American descent. After his father left to Cuba and later, Mexico to escape racism in the United States, his mother moved to Lawrence, Kansas where Hughes was raised by his grandmother. After his grandmother’s death, Langston’s family moved two more times before settling in Cleveland, Ohio where he attended high school.
Langston first began writing poetry in high school, but was first published in 1921 while at Columbia University (which he was able to attend after some tough negotiation with his father over funds). He left the school in 1922 due to racial prejudice and traveled the western hemisphere as a crewman on the S.S. Malone until his return in 1924 to live in Washington D.C. with his mother. After quitting a job that he found too time consuming for his writing, he picked up a job as a busboy in the Wardman Park Hotel where he and his work were found and publicized by fellow African-American poet Vachel Lindsay.
Hughes’ work was very influential to the Harlem renaissance movement from his publication onwards, and after graduating from Lincoln University in 1929 he moved to Harlem. He continued to publish poetry, novels, and even made a foray into playwriting until his death in 1965.
Langston’s work was most influenced by the racial issues of the time. From an early age his grandmother imbued him with the strong sense of racial pride that became a central theme in his work. His poems and novels stressed large amounts of cultural nationalism and pride with no self-hate to black people across the world, and life in Harlem inspired him to take a focus on the lives of the middle-lower class black community as opposed to the view of high status African-American culture provided by other social justice writers. In 1941 he acquired a long running (20 years) column in the Chicago Defender in which he discussed relevant race issues and gave a voice to the black community.
I, Too and I Know my Soul both deal with the struggles of being an African-American in the time period. Both involve the narrator finding pride or comfort in their race and resisting social discrimination. However, the narrator of I, Too finds hope in the external notion of blacks gaining proper rights, while the narrator of I Know My Soul finds comfort in looking within themselves and seeing themselves as a competent person.