Theme for English B

by Langston Hughes

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Who is Bessie in Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B"?

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Langston Hughes' “Theme for English B” looks at racial identity and the difficulties involved in trying to label somebody as simply black or white. The poem's speaker is a college student at a school near Harlem, New York. He begins his questioning as a result of an assignment in which his English instructor asks him to . . .

Go home and write

a page tonight.

And let that page come out of you--

Then, it will be true.

He then questions the assignment by asking . . .

I wonder if it's that simple?

Then he begins to describe himself in the middle of the poem, telling the reader about himself and identifying himself as black. During this description he lists some things that he likes, including . . .

I like a pipe for a Christmas present,

or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.

The Bessie he is referring to is almost certainly Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith was a well known jazz and blues singer from the 20's and 30's. She fits with Hughes' theme in this poem because she appealed to both black and white audiences, which was not common in that time period. Using her name helps Hughes make his point that, although different races have obvious differences, we may be more alike than we realize.


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