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Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B"

Updated on October 8, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Langston Hughes

Source

Commentary

In Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B," the speaker muses on how to write a college essay about himself that will be "true."

The speaker is a student who has been given the assignment of writing a paper that "come[s] out of you." The instructor insists that the paper will be true, if the student will just write from his own heart and experience, but the speaker remains somewhat skeptical of that claim, thinking that maybe he unsure it is "that simple."

First Movement: "I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem"

The speaker begins by listing the reasons that assignment may not be that simple. The speaker is only twenty-two, but older than most of the students. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he attended school until coming to New York.

The speaker is now attending college in Harlem. He is the only African American ("colored" was the term employed in Hughes' lifetime) in the class. Hughes wrote this poem in 1951. Despite the fact that the majority population of Harlem was African American, it was still a time when few African Americans attended college.

Second Movement: "The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem"

As the speaker begins to write, he traces his route from the college to his apartment. This step in his composition process seems to be a delaying tactic, a brainstorming activity just to get him started thinking. He no doubt intuits that in writing, one thing leads to another, and he is no doubt hoping that the trivial will lead to the more profound.

Third Movement: "It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me"

The speaker then muses on what might be "true" for him and what might be "true" for a white instructor. It crosses his mind that the differences between them might be too great for the instructor to recognize a "colored" student's truth.

Nevertheless, the speaker begins to examine what he feels is true for himself. He then guesses that what he sees helps make him what he is—a brilliant recovery what might have sounded only like stalling in the brainstorming session that began his composition.

What he sees and hears is Harlem: "hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page. / (I hear New York too.) Me — who?" He then moves on to list what he likes: sleeping, eating, listening to music, which turns out to be rather eclectic from Bessie to Bach. He likes getting a pipe for Christmas along with records of all those favorite musicians.

Fourth Movement: "I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like"

The speaker then offers the notion that his race does not keep him from liking what other races might like. Thus he wonders, "So will my page be colored that I write?" Still, he wonders if the racial difference might hinder his communication with the white instructor.

Fifth Movement: "Being me, it will not be white."

The speaker then insists that his writing will "not be white." Yet it must still be part of the instructor. Although he is black and the instructor is white, they are surely still part of each other because "That's American."

Yet he does remain aware that often whites do not want to be part of blacks, and he is also aware that the reverse is equally true. Despite those racial boundaries of separation, the speaker believes that they are still part of each other, whether they accept it or not.

Finally, the speaker concludes with a very significant discernment: the black student learns from the white instructor, and the white instructor can also learn from the black student, even if the instructor is older, white, and "somewhat more free" than the black student is.

The speaker concludes by offering the bald statement, "This is my page for English B." He seems to feel that he has probably exhausted the truth for this assignment.

Dramatic Interpretive Reading of Hughes' "Theme for English B"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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