Discuss "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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. 

mfreddo | Student

"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?"

In these opening lines of the poem, Hughes first identifies the disparity between black and white.  He wonders if the same goals are attaintable for him as he considers his background and circumstances.  Will everything that pours out of him be true?

As them poem continues, Hughes goes on to paint the picture of their symbiotic relationship (instructor and student).  They are vastly different as he is "older- and white- and somewhat more free" and yet they have the opporunity to learn from eachother.  Moreover, they are described as part of eachother as Americans, yet the speaker is hesistant to believe the instructor embraces this connection and admits that he himself might, at times, prefer to isolate himself.