Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913
Langston Hughes's "Theme for English B" is about a young Black student struggling to write a paper for "English B," a class at a "college on the hill above Harlem." At first, a reader might mistake it for an autobiographical work simply recounting Hughes's own experiences as a student. However, several details suggest that the work is not simple autobiography, but rather that the narrator is a fictional character constructed to make the reader think about historically and socially significant issues.
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The narrator describes himself as follows:
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
Langston Hughes was born in 1901 and would have been forty-eight years old when the poem was published in 1949. Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, not Winston-Salem, and grew up in Kansas. In 1921, at the age of twenty, not twenty-two, he attended Columbia University, not City College, the school described in the poem. The date of publication of the poem was at the beginning of the great period of prosperity after World War II, in which returning veterans and people from a far wider range of social backgrounds than previously was the case began to attend college. The GI Bill, in particular, enabled Black as well as White veterans to attend college, promising a new level of opportunity and civil rights. Although the poem does document the struggles of a young Black man in a dominantly White society, its message is one of hope and unity, ultimately emphasizing not division but common humanity as "American," reflecting the patriotism and moral mission that had brought Americans together to fight the Nazis and defend the causes of freedom and democracy.
The key image in the poem is that of the "college on the hill above Harlem." The image echoes the Biblical passage Matthew 5:14-16: "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid." It can be read as a clarion call to speak out, as it exhorts readers to "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works." The poem itself, represented as a product of the college, is a light of education and of Black self-understanding shining forth.
Below the college on the hill is Harlem, an area known for the great flourishing of Black culture in the first half of the twentieth century known as the Harlem Renaissance. The poet evokes the details of the path he takes between the college and his room at the "Harlem Branch Y" in a simple list of streets. His specific image of the "Y," an abbreviation for the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), emphasizes religious and social justice themes in the poems. The YMCA was founded in London, England, on June 6, 1844, to provide a safe haven for poor young men, like the narrator of the poem, to live safely in the cities to which they flocked for jobs. In 1853, a YMCA was founded specifically for African Americans in Washington, D.C., and thus the specific image of a young narrator from the South living in a YMCA in a large city evokes the history of abolitionism and the struggle for equality against a heritage of slavery.
Another important group of related images are those of the daily life of the narrator. He enjoys smoking a pipe and listening to music. The musicians he mentions include the White baroque master Bach; Bessie Smith, a Black blues singer; and be-bop, a type of jazz. He describes enjoying generic activities:
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
The very lack of specificity means that these are things the reader will share in common with the narrator.
"Theme for English B" is written in free verse, a genre associated with literary modernism. In some ways, this metrical freedom can be seen as a rebellion against the traditions of White poetry, and yet Hughes's relationship with literary form was complex. African American cultural traditions were deeply rooted in folk genres such as the spiritual and blues, which were highly rhythmical, and Hughes himself uses a mixture of free verse and rhyme in much of his work. The first four lines of the poem, spoken in the voice of the White professor, consist of two rhyming couplets, with the first, second, and fourth lines being in iambic dimeter. While the rest of the poem is in free verse, using simple diction and eschewing elaborate figures of speech, the ghost of rhyme resurfaces at the end of the poem, giving a sense of poetic closure:
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
Of these lines, the first pair includes the end rhymes "true / you" and recalls the meter of the initial two couplets. Three of the final four lines also are end-rhymed, "me /free /B," and also echo the simple accentual rhythms of the opening.
Another literary device used in the poem is "anaphora," or repetitions of phrases at the beginning of clauses, such as the repetition of "I like." On a sonic level, one finds alliteration, or repetition of consonant sounds, such as the initial "b" sounds in the list of musicians "Bessie, bop, or Bach."