“I, too, sing America,” wrote Langston Hughes in 1945 in his poem of the same name.
Many people over the years have found great inspiration in these words. Three-time Caldecott Honor recipient Bryan Collier’s name can be added to that list. In his most recent book from Simon & Schuster, I, Too, Am America, he adapts this powerful poem into the picture book form, using the framework of the Pullman porters to tell an eloquent narrative.
The Pullman porters were the former slaves hired to work as porters on the sleeping cars of American luxury trains after the start of the Civil War. Many of them, Collier explains in the book’s closing illustrator’s note, would gather the magazines, newspapers, and blues and jazz vinyl recordings left on the trains to then toss from the back of the last train car, “acting as a conduit of culture, a distributor of knowledge to those who couldn’t afford those items on their own.”
“I thought that the history and legacy of the Pullman porters and sleeping car waiters,” Collier told me, “were a perfect vehicle to tease out some of the themes of inequality, [African-Americans] being considered invisible and marginalized in American life. The Pullman porters were remarkable and dignified through their constant travel on the train in the way they became the lifeline to the outside world for their community.”
With his dynamic mixed-media artwork, infused with lyricism and an almost palpable energy, Collier depicts the porters tossing items into the air. They reach a young girl working in a cotton field of the past, but they also soar through time to reach what Collier describes in the book’s final note as “a northern cityscape, reminiscent of Langston Hughes’s own hometown of Harlem, New York, where there are still eager hands and minds ready to absorb whatever knowledge they can.”
Collier’s decision to populate this iconic poem with Pullman porters works on many levels and is compelling. Also compelling is what Collier calls the book’s stars-and-stripes American flag motif, as well as the book’s final spread—and cover image—of a contemporary young boy, looking as if he's peering at us through an American flag.
“The boy peering through the flag,” Collier says, “is more of the metaphor that speaks to the idea of people of color being looked over or looked past, while playing a major role in the building of this country that reaches back to slavery. It also has a universal meaning, as everyone has the desire to be seen and should be recognized as well.”
When asked about Langston Hughes’ influence on Collier, he says, “When I moved to Harlem and I read [Hughes’] The Big Sea, it's as if I could feel his presence there.”
The same could be said for Collier’s book, which gives a commanding and singular structure to Hughes’ famous words, expressing a wish for equality and, in Collier’s words, a vision for “how bright our future can be.”
Spread from I, TOO, AM AMERICA is copyright © 2012 by Bryan Collier and used with permission of Simon & Schuster.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.