Langston Hughes “Theme for English B” is an unusual poem written as though it is an assignment for a young, black, college scholar. The assignment from the white instructor is daunting to an inexperienced writer. It is always hard to face a blank sheet of paper with little instructions to initiate the assignment.
Assignment: Tonight, write a page and let it come from your heart and mind. The grade will be based on the writing being honest and individual to you.
The tone of the poem is forthright and honest. When the assignment is given, the poet never questions it. It is assigned, and he will complete it. He feels the necessity to write it. The key to the poem is the two forces at work: he is the only black student in the class; and the white instructor’s ability to understand the student.
One of the oddities in an English class is that the grading is most often subjective. If a teacher grades an essay or a poem, there are standards to base a grade, but there is always an element of subjectivity that the student must understand will be used in the evaluation of the work.
The poem is written with a first person point of view with the poet as the narrator. He acknowledges that he is the only black student in the class and his teacher is white as well. As the poem progresses, the reader evolves with the student as he asserts who is he is and what it like to be him. He also tries to understand the point of view of the teacher.
The poem is basically free verse and in no particular form. On the other hand, as the poet progresses through his assignment, he becomes stronger and more confident. He does begin to have some rhyming toward the end of the poem. The appearance and scope of the poem develop as he talks with confidence in the poem to his teacher.
When the student begins the assignment, he wonders how hard it is going to be to complete it.
Then he begins writing in his mind:
He is twenty-two
Born in North Carolina
Then to college in Harlem
He is the only colored student in the class
He is living in the YMCA
He rides the elevator to his room and begins to put his thoughts on paper.
He finds it hard to know what is true at his age
Yet, he feels that what he senses around him and sees in Harlem influences him.
He asks himself who he is.
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, boy, or Bach.
He wonders how much being colored makes him who he is.
He is more than his color. He likes the same things as white people.
Then he asks a satirical question: Will the paper be colored since he is writing it?
He then addresses the instructor.
Since they are invested in each other as student and teacher, they are a part of each other.
That is what it means to be an American.
We may not want to be a part of each other, but that is the way it is.
We will learn from each other.
Yet, teacher…you are older, white, and more free.
My assignment is complete for English B.