How is “Theme for English B” an example of literature of encounter?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"Literature of encounter," being defined as the writing of one culture in an apprehension of the cultural other, is present in Langston Hughes's "Theme for English B."  As a freshman in college, the "only colored student in my class," Hughes expresses some anxiety about writing his theme.  However, as he considers what to write, Hughes realizes that while he is part of Harlem, Harlem is also part of New York: "The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem."

Another dilemma that Hughes faces is the fact that what is "true" for him may differ from what is true for the whites in his class.  For, truth contains personal realities.  Hughes considers that he likes "Bessie, bop, or Bach." Because he enjoys Blues, which is uniquely black music at that time, bop, and classical, which is white, Hughes concludes,

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./Your are white--/yet a part of me, as I am a part of you./That's American.

The truth, the reality, for Hughes is an existential one:  A person is a body full of thoughts and ideas of others which he attempts to mold and make his own in some way.  But, in composing oneself, a person must encounter the other cultures in his life.  Therefore, this other culture does, indeed, become a part of one's essence.

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