Theme for English B

by Langston Hughes

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Student Question

What does the speaker in "Theme for English B" reveal about himself and what assumptions about writing does the instructor make?

Quick answer:

The speaker of "Theme for English B" reveals that he is a young, Black man, the only Black student in his class, which is taught by a White instructor. The instructor assumes that all students will feel comfortable writing the truth about themselves, though this particular student does not share that same level of comfort. It is not a thoughtful assignment.

Expert Answers

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Significantly, the speaker reveals that he is Black, twenty-two years old, and goes to college. He is the "only colored student" in his class, and the instructor is White. He lives at the YMCA in Harlem. The speaker also reveals that he likes all kinds of music, not just the kinds that White people would expect him to. He says that he and the white instructor are "part of" one another, even if neither one would necessarily want to be.

Given the italicized assignment at the beginning of the poem, the instructor seems to believe that everyone feels as free to tell the truth about themselves as he would feel. He says that if the "page come[s] out of you— / Then, it will be true." However, the speaker of the poem obviously feels like who he is, really, if he tells the truth, will not be entirely palatable to the instructor, who does not seem to understand that emotional honesty is a privilege that some people do not have.

I don't feel the instructor's assignment is a good one, as it does not seem to acknowledge the difficulty this student of color will have with such an assignment. The instructor seems to believe that he has asked for something simple when, in fact, it is not a simple assignment for some. It seems to come from a position of privilege, though it does not acknowledge the existence of this privilege (which is not really surprising given the time period).

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