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Predicament of a Black College Student: Themes For English B

Updated on August 30, 2010


The theme of African American is perhaps among the most researched subject in social science and literature. Themes for English B explores the predicament of a black college student when he is given an assignment to write a theme that is true to read. The poet has tried to highlight the injustices that the black face. An understanding about the poet Langston Hughes would give us a greater insight into his poems.

     Langston Hughes became the popular voice of black struggle during 1920s as he experienced his first success as a poet after his collection of poems was published. During the following years his works in poetry went in tandem with more controversial political work. He was forthright, direct and even pessimistic in his expression of race relations. His poems focused primarily on the lives of the working class. As an artist, he feels the artist must be unafraid, an opinion he expresses in “The Negro Artist and the RacialMountain”. While saying so, he is not only defending the need for his own work, but calling forth and giving the next generation of poets the responsibility of writing about the race.

     Coming back to the poem ‘Theme for English B’ one finds the character, tone, setting, symbols and the other literary elements apt and perfect to provide background information so as to effectively communicate the inner feelings of the subject, a black American boy of twenty-two. For instance, “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”, indicates the background, time and growing up phase of the innocent, young boy, whom the instructor has assigned a theme that is true to write. “Let the page come out of you. Then it will be true”. What follows next is an inner perceptual journey of a colored boy living and being judged by the world- view of white men. As the writer begins to explore his thoughts, his self-assessment sets the tone throughout the poem. The character also begins to take form from now on.

     The paper he writes illustrates exactly how an African-American feels, acts and does in his day- to- day life. The poet tries to get across to the teacher through protagonist that the Black man likes and does the same thing as the White man. The difference exists only in the world- views of the two races. The young boy wonders, if his paper will be evaluated differently because he is black. He says in the poem, “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 protagonist neither seeks sympathy nor an apology but only an understanding. He however, also realizes that this will be hard given that he and his instructor come from two completely different worlds. He surmises that a Blackman will always have an impact on a Whiteman’s life and vice-versa, even as the Whiteman wants no part of Blackman’s life. His only wish is to be accepted not as a Blackman but an American.

     It is likely for the readers to misunderstand the phrase “That’s American”. The use of this phrase has to be seen in the context of time during which this poem was written. During those days the colored were not considered American but African. Nonetheless, the protagonist insists that despite the difference in their color, he and his instructor are American. “yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That’s American.” It merely symbolizes no matter what color you are, you are American because America is the place of multi-colored people. To be accepted as an American is perhaps the only meager wish that the poet suggested about the boy.

     But is that so simple? The student is not sure. Neither the assignment nor his acceptance in the larger community seems so simple to him as he begins to list all the reasons. At 22, he is probably older than most students in his class. What is even worse, he is colored. He was born in North Carolina, went to school in DurhamNC, then came to college in Harlem. Finally, he is the only colored or African-American in his class.

     The student then describes the route he takes to get from the college to his apartment, where he sits down to write his assignment. While doing so, he explores the contrast of two truths-one his own and two his instructor’s-that he visualizes would not promote his case. He explores and discovers what he likes and loves. And then wonders if his likes and loves are not the same as those of the others, who belong to the other race. He finds nothing that differentiates him from his other folks and yet he can scarcely deny the fact that the difference in color makes all the difference to his life situation. It is nothing but color alone that distinguishes him from the rest in being evaluated. He can’t help as his paper too will be colored because he is colored.          

    The poem climaxes at the sad irony. The poet highlights the grave facts of racism and inequality in America. The realization of these facts sets the tone, symbols and themes. The protagonist is candid in his opinions and frank in appraisal. He begins by questioning the instructor from the very beginning. As soon as he gets instructions from his instructor right in the beginning of the poem, he begins with the question, “I wonder if it’s that simple?” And then goes on to analyze his own self and his background. His conclusion brings the story to a climax, where it ends.


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