The poem "Theme for English B" is a meditation by the speaker on a one-page essay assigned by his professor. The professor says that as long as it comes from themselves, whatever the students write will be true. The speaker, who is black, notes the racial divide between his professor and himself. He struggles with the simplicity of the assignment and questions whether something that is true for him is also true for his white professor or whether truth is inherently distorted by racism.
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In his poem “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes writes from the perspective of an African American college student responding to an assignment. The poem presents a situation both universal and specific, that of a student wondering how to complete a homework assignment while incorporating details relating to...
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In his poem “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes writes from the perspective of an African American college student responding to an assignment. The poem presents a situation both universal and specific, that of a student wondering how to complete a homework assignment while incorporating details relating to the experiences of black people in mid-century America.
The poem is free verse and begins with an informal and conversational style. The lines flow like ordinary speech, as if the student were speaking directly to the professor instead of writing. After reviewing the assignment, the student seems hesitant, musing, “I wonder if it’s that simple?” to assert his identity and place in the world in a way that’s true.
He then begins as any novice writer might with autobiographical details, relating that he is from North Carolina, is the only black student in the English class, and lives at the Y in Harlem.
After this straightforward introduction, the poem reaches its first turning point. The student begins to realize the first part of his identity as a member of a community known for black achievement and culture, stating,
But I guess I’m whatI feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.Hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page. (I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
At this point, the reader can imagine the student sitting up straighter at his desk and writing with more energy. The poem picks up a new rhythm as indicated by dashes and the playful rhymes too/you/who. He is conversing with Harlem as a part of himself.
The student then writes more candidly, stating his gift preferences for Christmas and observations on the relationship between black and white Americans. He jokes (with an edge), “So will my page be colored that I write?” and then gets to the next turning point of the poem, the part of the response that finally arrives at what is true:
You are white—yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.That’s American.Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. Nor do I often want to be a part of you.But we are, that’s true!
The student’s insight here calls back the assertions in Hughes’s 1926 poem, “I, Too.” However, at the end, the student concludes somewhat cryptically that although his professor is white and as such has certain privileges in American society, he is only “somewhat more free” than the student.
Perhaps part of the truth the student has arrived at—what has come out of him during the process of writing—is that while African Americans face obvious discrimination, white Americans also experience the corrosive effects of racism by not being able to fully embrace their own humanity (a situation described by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography with his observations of Mr. and Mrs. Auld).
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The poem’s theme can be interpreted as the student’s search to express himself and understand his identity, within himself, within his community, and in relation to white people.