Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1042
The first major theme of Langston Hughes's "Theme for English B" is education. The very title of the poem frames the work as an assignment for a university class. "English B" suggests the second semester of a first-year writing or literature course, one likely to be required of all students rather than an advanced course for English majors. This supposition is substantiated by the nature of the assignment, which is simply to write "a page tonight." The lack of specificity is typical of an assignment designed to promote what writing instructors call "fluency," the ability simply to get a certain number of words on the page. The suggestion that the page should simply "come out of you" and the narrator's relaying that the instructor designed the assignment to be "that simple" also suggest an assignment designed simply to encourage students to write without being held back by worries about living up to a particular writing standard.
Although the "college on the hill above Harlem" is not named, its location suggests City College of New York. City College was originally founded as the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1847 with the mission of providing good education to the children of immigrants and other poor families. At the time Hughes was writing, City College was still distinguished for providing first-rate education to Blacks, Jews, immigrants, and other students who due to racial, class, and ethnic discrimination had limited opportunities to attend elite universities. Other educational institutions are also designated only by their locations in Winston-Salem and Durham, located in the racially segregated South. This institutional diversity suggests that education was often seen as a panacea that might eventually enable Blacks to overcome racial inequality. However, it is not just racially segregated Southern institutions that are seen as problematic but also City College, an institution described as a "college on a hill" in a phrase reminiscent of Matthew 5:14-16: "Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid." Education is seen in the poem as dominated by White faculty and ideology and therefore incommensurate in some ways with Black cultural identity.
Several different aspects of identity supply key themes of the poem. The narrator is described as "twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem." Thus the reader is confronted with three separate aspects of identity: age, race, and geography.
In terms of age, the narrator is a young man, still developing his own identity distinct from that of his parents. In literature, novels about this coming-of-age and developing of individual identity are referred to as bildungsroman and deal with the education or formation of a character who is typically intelligent and sensitive and often involved in the arts. Although "Theme for English B" is a poem rather than a novel, it follows a typical narrative arc of the genre, culminating in an epiphany in which some of the inherent contradictions of the protagonist's identity and character are resolved.
Although the narrator was born in the racially segregated South, he has moved to the cosmopolitan environment of New York City. Part of his quest for authenticity has to do with assuming the identity of a sophisticated, successful urban writer without being untrue to his Southern roots. This geographical heritage of slavery and oppression is an essential part of his racial identity, and by emphasizing it he implicitly rejects "passing" and losing his original self.
Racial identity is also central to the poem. The narrator is "colored," or Black, and given a writing assignment by a White professor. The class would have emphasized literary works by White people and literature as expressing a White ideological context and formation. The narrator is keenly aware of his own sense of difference and struggles to write from a subject position that is bifurcated into two opposing identities, a White "writerly" identity and an authentic Black one. The student gradually realizes, though that these two identities are not opposed, saying:
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. . . .
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
This suggests a possible resolution to the problem of identity. The mention of music is especially important. The popularity of jazz during the Harlem Renaissance brought White and Black communities together, and Hughes is emphasizing that art, whether music or writing, makes a point of commonality that transcends difference. He sees the true condition of being American, whether an older White professor or younger Black student, as one where people through art and writing can share their experiences and learn from each other, breaking out of the limits of oppositional identity to realize their common humanity.
Langston Hughes's "Theme for English B" is what literary critics term "self-reflexive" or "self-referential," meaning that it is a poem that reflects on itself as a poem and on the act of the writing the poem, a characteristic typical of literary modernism, a movement that influenced the Harlem Renaissance, of which Hughes was part. The very title of the poem focuses the reader's attention on the act of writing and composition. The opening lines frame the poem as an assignment in a university writing course, offering first the professor's instructions to the students about writing and then the student's process as a writer, reflecting on that process in ways that complicate the act of writing by suggesting that there are specific obstacles faced by the Black writer in trying simultaneously to complete the assignment and to be true to his own identity. He worries about whether "my page be colored that I write" and struggles to understand if that will vitiate his work in some manner. In the end, though, he resolves the dilemma by suggesting that the common humanity of writer and reader is what enables successful writing and communication and concludes with the line "This is my page for English B." The conclusion serves as what some literary theorists would describe as a "performative utterance." In other words, the text before the readers is not just a poem about the page for English B but also is the page.
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