"Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes Analysis
Diversity Brings Richness and Greater Truth
The poem “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes depicts a black young adult who is attempting to figure out what is true in his life via an English assignment. As the only black man in his college English class, the speaker is not sure whether to take on the persona of a typical English student, regardless of race, or to stay true to his heritage and culture. The structure of this poem conveys a struggle for identity and truth in a fast-paced world whose ideas are constantly changing.
The poem begins with a quote from the speaker’s English instructor, claiming that any piece written from the heart will automatically be true. However, in the next stanza, the speaker expresses doubts about his instructor’s advice. He lists facts about himself that set him apart from his classmates, including the fact that he is the only African American man in his class and that he resides in Harlem (Hughes 10-11). In the third stanza, the speaker then switches to expressing traits he knows to be similar between himself and his classmates, “I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life” (Hughes 21-22). By showing that he has things in common with his peers, even though they are very different at first glance, the speaker is depicting his dilemma at figuring out who he is and how he fits in with the world. He is both a part of Harlem and a part of a mostly white English class: “I guess I’m what / I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you” (Hughes 17-18). While he holds onto his African American culture, he also acknowledges that it does not define him as a person: “I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (Hughes 25-26). The speaker comes to the conclusion that although he is different from his peers in some ways, they are all Americans with common likes and purposes. Therefore, he, his classmates, and his instructor will all learn from each other, increasing the diversity, richness, and truth that they can discover because, although they have parallels, everyone can bring a different perspective, or their own truth, to the table to share.
I find this poem very easy to relate to both for myself and any other young adult or college student who is still trying to figure out how to relate to other people in “real life”. It can sometimes be hard to find commonalities with new acquaintances, especially when my peers and I come from such diverse and varying backgrounds. While I have lived in a very small, sheltered, suburban town for my entire life, I have met people in college from almost every state and every situation imaginable. It can be overwhelming and easy to recede back into one’s comfort zone of easily stated facts, such as race and hometown. However, if one digs a little deeper, it is not hard to find small similarities like the speaker in the poem does: “I like to work, read, learn, and understand life” (Hughes 22). I find myself surrounded by active, engaging people who pursue a multitude of topics, some similar to my own interests and others that I have never even pondered. I feel as if Langston Hughes encapsulates my exact sentiments on the matter of diversity when he writes, “As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me” (Hughes 37-38). Rather than isolating ourselves, we can choose to find similarities among our peers, creating a rich environment with many perspectives from which to learn while seeking truth and knowledge.
Hughes, Langston. “Theme for English B.” 1949.