Theme for English B

by Langston Hughes

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Explain the poem "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes. 

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The poem "Theme for English B" is a meditation by the speaker on a one-page essay assigned by his professor. The professor says that as long as it comes from themselves, whatever the students write will be true. The speaker, who is black, notes the racial divide between his professor and himself. He struggles with the simplicity of the assignment and questions whether something that is true for him is also true for his white professor or whether truth is inherently distorted by racism.

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In his poem “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes writes from the perspective of an African American college student responding to an assignment. The poem presents a situation both universal and specific, that of a student wondering how to complete a homework assignment while incorporating details relating to...

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the experiences of black people in mid-century America.

The poem is free verse and begins with an informal and conversational style. The lines flow like ordinary speech, as if the student were speaking directly to the professor instead of writing. After reviewing the assignment, the student seems hesitant, musing, “I wonder if it’s that simple?” to assert his identity and place in the world in a way that’s true.

He then begins as any novice writer might with autobiographical details, relating that he is from North Carolina, is the only black student in the English class, and lives at the Y in Harlem.

After this straightforward introduction, the poem reaches its first turning point. The student begins to realize the first part of his identity as a member of a community known for black achievement and culture, stating,

But I guess I’m whatI 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?

At this point, the reader can imagine the student sitting up straighter at his desk and writing with more energy. The poem picks up a new rhythm as indicated by dashes and the playful rhymes too/you/who. He is conversing with Harlem as a part of himself.

The student then writes more candidly, stating his gift preferences for Christmas and observations on the relationship between black and white Americans. He jokes (with an edge), “So will my page be colored that I write?” and then gets to the next turning point of the poem, the part of the response that finally arrives at what is true:

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!

The student’s insight here calls back the assertions in Hughes’s 1926 poem, “I, Too.” However, at the end, the student concludes somewhat cryptically that although his professor is white and as such has certain privileges in American society, he is only “somewhat more free” than the student.

Perhaps part of the truth the student has arrived atwhat has come out of him during the process of writingis that while African Americans face obvious discrimination, white Americans also experience the corrosive effects of racism by not being able to fully embrace their own humanity (a situation described by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography with his observations of Mr. and Mrs. Auld).

The poem’s theme can be interpreted as the student’s search to express himself and understand his identity, within himself, within his community, and in relation to white people.

Further Reading: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

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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.

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What is the theme of the poem "Theme for English B," by Langston Hughes?

The theme of this poem is the "othering" that is created by being Black. Langston Hughes is pointing out that due to the color of his skin, his experience of life is different to that of his fellow students and the lecturer who has asked him to write this paper.

To put the phrase "othering" a different way, this poem discusses what it means to be Black rather than White. The theme therefore revolves around being the proverbial odd one out.

The speaker in this poem was given a particularly generic assignment: to write one page about anything honest. In completing this assignment, the speaker needed to look inside himself, and in doing this, he is faced with the reality that he is—and always will be—remarkably different to the person who set this assignment and to his fellow students.

By explaining how he gets from class to the place where he lives, he emphasizes the differences between himself and his classmates and teacher. On the other hand, by telling us that he would like to receive a pipe or records as gifts, he reiterates the common ground that exists between people of all race groups.

He finishes off by reminding his teacher—and his readers—that there are certain freedoms that are enjoyed by White people but not people of color.

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What is the theme of the poem "Theme for English B," by Langston Hughes?

The overriding theme of this poem, as with many of Hughes's poems, is the black American experience, how it relates to identity, and how it can make it difficult for white Americans to understand others. The speaker in this poem has been directed by a teacher to write an exercise for class in which he should simply "let that page come out of you," the idea being that the words that flow will then be "true." However, Hughes contemplates in this poem whether this is as true for him, a black American, as it might be for "you," the teacher, who is a representative of wider white society and who is "somewhat more free."

In the body of the poem, Hughes details the simple aspects of his day-to-day life and upbringing: where he went to school and how he found his way to "this college on the hill above Harlem." Notably, however, he begins this account with the statement that he is "colored" and then goes on to mention that he was the only "colored" child in his class growing up. This immediately differentiates him from the white teacher, who would, Hughes implies, never think to begin an account of himself with the statement that he is white. Whiteness is the default; being "colored," on the other hand, literally colors every aspect of Hughes's life. This is something he wants the teacher to "learn" from him, as he suspects it has never crossed his mind.

The words Hughes writes, he says, "will not be white." Despite the fact that he does not "not like" the same things as people of other races simply because he is black, his blackness, in American society, is something he must confront or deal with before he goes on to contemplate other things in his experience. This marks a division between himself and the teacher, but it is not one, Hughes suggests, that is impossible to overcome. On the contrary, if people speak to each other and communicate their lived experiences, it is possible for both to "learn."

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What is the theme of the poem "Theme for English B," by Langston Hughes?

In Langston Hughes' poem, "Theme for English B," I believe the theme deals primarily with the perceived difference between the white and black experience...and that it shouldn't be "a black and white" issue.

To fulfill an English writing assignment, the speaker goes home and describes himself, providing the instructor with "truth." He speaks of his connection to Harlem, describes the things that he likes. He acknowledges that what is true for him may not be true for his professor, and perhaps it is because of race. As the only black student in his class, the speaker wonders if this paper that he writes will be "colored."

Looking deeper, the speaker realizes that once he turns the paper in, it becomes a part of his professor. What they do have in common is that they are American—in this way they are a part of each other, whether they like it or not: and he admits there are times when neither one of them likes that fact. However, while there are divisions in the American experience, the speaker believes they can still learn from each other—learning perhaps that what binds them is a truth for both of them...though not necessarily exactly the same. For instance, they can both like the same food or a Christmas pipe...some of the same things, even though they do not share the same race.

I believe that Langston Hughes recognizes the difference of race, while he wishes there was not an issue of color. But he is also realistic. There are other things—things that he and the professor don't have in common: the professor is white; he's older; and, perhaps most importantly, "somewhat more free," a glaring "truth" in 1951.

The theme is about trying to overcome the obstacles that separation by race creates.

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Discuss "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes’ poem “Theme for English B” is a thought provoking poem. When first approached, the poem seems to be for the black reader; however,  it really speaks to the white man.  Published in 1949, it addresses the problems faced by young adults who wanted a college education. 

Of course, this problem later came to the forefront in the 1950s and 1960s. The black students wanted an education just like the whites. The poem dates itself through the use of the word “colored” which is nomenclature that is no used.

This is poem that speaks volumes to loneliness and isolation. The narration is first person point of view with a black student acting as the narrator.  This student feels quite alone as he enters a class in a New York college as the only one of his race in the clas

The teacher gives an intriguing assignment:

Go home and write

A page tonight,

And let that page come out of you—

Then, it will be true. 

The reader and the audience for the essay will be the teacher.

Then he gives pertinent information about himself:

  • 22 years old
  • Colored
  • From North Carolina
  • City College of New York,
  • Only black student in the class

As an imagist, Hughes describes the path of the student as he makes his way back to his room at the YMCA. It will be there that he responds to the teacher’s assignment.

He begins by speaking to the teacher.  How do either of them know what is true for the other? The boy is only 22 years old and unsure of who he is. 

In his mind, he hears the sounds around him that are typical of Harlem.  The poet mimics its rhythm:

I hear you:  hear you, hear me—we two—you, me. talk on this page. ( I hear New York, too.) Me—who?

Then he begins to describe himself which most importantly speaks to his love for learning. This is an intelligent, sensitive, yet typical guy for his age. He has a work ethic, wants a pipe for Christmas [possibly to look older] and lots of music.  He also comments on the fact that just because he is black does not mean that does not like the same things that white people do. 

Then the author writes the most clever and beautiful metaphor in the poem:

 So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.

The blank white paper stands for the quality of being white; the writing over it constitutes the aspect of being colored. Thus each aspect complements the other lending significance to the writer and what he writes.

Hughes defines what he hopes one day will be the definition of an American: Because the instructor and the student share a common bond, the English class, they have become a part of each other.  The teacher is white, so he is a part of the student.  The student is black, then he is a part of the teacher. That is what it means to be an American. 

The student has a question in his mind about the teacher actually wanting to be a part of him; and he admits that he does not really want to be a part of the instructor. 

Describing the teacher as older and white and in those days certainly more free…This is what the student handed in for his theme for English B. The final line is full of irony. Although the student is the lone black in the class, his desire to learn and achieve makes his strong in his representation of his race. 

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Message of "Theme for English B" by Langston HughesWhat did the author is trying to say in "Theme for English B?"

Langston Hughes attended college "on a hill above Harlem," where he was the only black student in the class. Thus, when he is assigned a theme to be written on a paper which is to "come out" of him, Hughes wonders if his professor will know what is true for him, having had much different experiences from her. Yet, there is some common humanity between them "That's American," even though there are times when he does not always wish to be a part of the professor.

But we are, that's true!

As I learn from you,

I guess you learn from me--

although hyou're older--and white--

And somewhat more free.  

In the end, Hughes surmises that the teacher learns from him, as he learns from her, although she is older and white and "somewhat more free." So, while they share some experiences, others are unique to him and others obstacles for him.

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Message of "Theme for English B" by Langston HughesWhat did the author is trying to say in "Theme for English B?"

For me, the author is trying to say that Americans are all tied together, regardless of what race they are.  He is saying that black people are part of white people and white people are part of black people, whether each side would like it that way or not.

In addition, the author is trying to say that there are, in our society perceptions about people of different races.  We think that people of other races are in some way fundamentally different from us.  Hughes seems to be saying that this is not how things should be, but, at the same time, he realizes that that is how they are.

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Read "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes.What is the speaker trying to say in his essay?

Part of what makes this poem so powerful is the idea that individuals play a vital role in constructing their own sense of reality.  The opening lines or the assignment takes this to a simple, yet alarmingly complex, level.  When the instructor asks the students to essentially construct truth, it is at this point where Hughes takes off in his exploration. Indeed, part of this journey is to articulate what it means to be black in the social setting of the time.  Part of this is to go to a different home than others, a different part of town than others, and to sit in a college classroom while looking physically and  experiencing reality metaphysically different than others.  This construction of truth is undeniable.  Yet, there are aspects within this experience where race is not the defining element to one's being.  When the speaker articulates wanting a pipe or specific types of music, there is an amazingly complex truth present:  Perhaps, it is not race that divides as much as class or cultural capital which is the demarcation.  Few literary thinkers, and even fewer poets, have played with this like Hughes has.  The convergence of race and class/ cultural capital is what helps the speaker define his level of truth as a complex one, where individuals face different concentric circles of experience and "truth."

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Read "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes.What is the speaker trying to say in his essay?

I think he's trying to say a few things:

  • He's trying to say that at some level people of different races are not that different.
  • But at the same time, he's not at all sure that what's true for him as a 22 year-old black person is the same as what's true for his older, white teacher.
  • He's trying to say that white and black Americas (if they are separate things) are tied up with one another, somehow connected whether they want to be or not.

So if you look at all that, what is the overall message that Hughes is trying to get across?

I'd say that it is the message that race in this country is a difficult topic.  It's hard to know where our similarities end and our differences begin.

I wonder what he would have written if he'd been half-white half not like me...

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