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Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B"

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.

Introduction and Text of "Theme for English B"

The speaker is a non-traditional, older student in a college English class, and he 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 is unsure it is "that simple."

Note on Usage

In 1988, Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced Americans to adopt the usage of the phrase, "African American." "Negro" and "colored" had been the common, accepted terms at the time Langston Hughes was writing. Thus, in this poem, Hughes has his speaker refer to himself as "colored"; in another poem, the poet has used the term "Negro," as in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

Theme for English B

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.

Reading of "Theme for English B"

Commentary

In Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B," the speaker muses on how to write a college essay about himself. The issue of race intrudes on the speaker’s thoughts, and he offers his experienced observation about the supposed differences between the races.

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

The speaker is now attending college in Harlem. He is the only "colored" student in the class. Despite the fact that the majority of the population of Harlem was African American, it was still a time when few of them attended college.

Second Movement: A Brainstorming Tactic

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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 the route that he takes 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 from what might have sounded only like stalling in the brainstorming session that began his composition. By tracing the route he takes to school, he opens up the possibilities for what he sees and hears.

What he sees and hears is Harlem as he somewhat awkwardly spills out his thinking. He hears himself, he hears his instructor, and now he has to "talk on this page" to this instructor. He hears "New York," but then he circles back to himself with a question, implying a query into who he actually is.

The answer to his question is important because the assignment, after all, is to produce a piece of writing that tells the instructor who is he, what he hopes for, and what is in his heart and mind. The instructor has intimated that if the student writer will search his own heart and mind, he will then write what is "true."

The speaker then moves on to catalogue what he likes: sleeping, eating, drinking, and being in love. Furthermore, he enjoys such activities as working, reading, learning, and he likes to "understand life"—all fine qualities that would likely impress a college instructor. He also likes to receive "a pipe for a Christmas present."

Finally, the speaker jots down that he enjoys getting records for Christmas and listening to music, which turns out to be rather eclectic from "Bessie, bop, or Bach." He must be simply gleeful that his music preferences create a nice series of alliteration.

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 opening two lines of this movement present the observation that this young man has tentatively made in his life, so he frames that observation as a "guess"—he surmises that race does not dictate what an individual "likes."

Still as a young man, he continues to wonder if how he feels and what he says will register with his white instructor. He, therefore, wonders if what he writes will be "colored." He is contemplating what he believes is true for himself as the instructor has suggested, but he remains unsure that he can be understood by a white instructor if his words reveal him as "colored."

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

Langston Hughes - Commemorative Stamp

Langston Hughes - Commemorative Stamp

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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