Theme for English B

by Langston Hughes
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Theme For English B Analysis

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

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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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 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 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?

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.

Tone

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. 

Narration

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.

 Form

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.

 Summary 

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

Colored

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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