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Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B"

Updated on June 7, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Langston Hughes

Source

Note on Use of the Terms, "Negro" or "Colored"

The poet featured in this article used the terms "Negro" and "colored" because he was writing several decades before Rev. Jesse Jackson persuaded American blacks to prefer the term 'African-American'.

Introduction and Text of Poem

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."

(Note on Use of the Term, "Colored" and/or "Negro": Langston Hughes, who lived from 1902 to 1967, uses the terms "colored" and/or "Negro"not "African American"because Hughes was writing several decades before 1988, when "Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced America’s black population to adopt the term 'African-American'.”)

Theme for English

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
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—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

Interpretive Reading of "Theme for English B"

Commentary

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

First Movement: Not a Simple Assignment

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.

The speaker/student 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, he is now attending college in Harlem. He is the only "colored" student 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: A Brainstorming Tactic

The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

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: Musing on What Is True

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.

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: Communication Between Black and White

I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

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: Racial Boundaries

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
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—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

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.

Langston Hughes - Commemorative Stamp

Source

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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