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Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Excerpt from "Theme for English B"

The speaker is a non-traditional, older student in a college English class, and he has been given the assignment of writing a paper that "come[s] out of you." The instructor insists that the paper will be "true," if the student will just write from his own heart and experience, but the speaker remains somewhat skeptical of that claim, thinking that maybe he is unsure it is "that simple."

(Note on Use of the Terms, "Colored" and/or "Negro": Langston Hughes, who lived from 1902 to 1967, uses the terms "colored" and/or "Negro"not "African American"because Hughes was writing three decades before 1988, when "Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced America’s black population to adopt the term 'African-American'.”)

Excerpt from "Theme for English B"

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
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.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page . . .

To read the remaining lines, please visit "'Theme for English B' by Langston Hughes."

Reading of "Theme for English B"

Commentary

In Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B," the speaker muses on how to write a college essay about himself. The issue of race intrudes on the speaker’s thoughts, and he offers an important, accurate fact about the supposed differences between the races.

First Movement: Not a Simple Assignment

The speaker begins by listing the reasons that the assignment may not be so simple as the instructor has made it sound. The speaker is only twenty-two but older than most of the students. Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he attended school until he relocated to New York.

The speaker is now attending college in Harlem. He is the only African American ("colored" was the term employed in Hughes' lifetime) student in the class. Despite the fact that the majority of the population of Harlem was African American, it was still a time when few African Americans attended college.

Second Movement: A Brainstorming Tactic

As the speaker begins to write, he traces the route that he takes from the college to his apartment. This step in his composition process seems to be a delaying tactic—a brainstorming activity just to get him started thinking. He no doubt intuits that in writing one thing leads to another, and he is no doubt hoping that the trivial will lead to the more profound.

Third Movement: Musing on What Is True

The speaker then muses on what might be "true" for him and what might be "true" for a white instructor. It crosses his mind that the differences between them might be too great for the instructor to recognize a "colored" student's truth.

Nevertheless, the speaker begins to examine what he feels is true for himself. He then guesses that what he sees helps make him what he is—a brilliant recovery from what might have sounded only like stalling in the brainstorming session that began his composition. By tracing the route he takes to school, he opens up the possibilities for what he sees and hears.

What he sees and hears is Harlem as he somewhat awkwardly spills out his thinking. He hears himself, he hears his instructor, and now he has to "talk on this page" to this instructor. He hears "New York," but then he circles back to himself with a question, implying a query into who he actually is.

The answer to his question is important because the assignment, after all, is to produce a piece of writing that tells the instructor who is he, what he hopes for, and what is in his heart and mind. The instructor has intimated that if the student writer will search his own heart and mind, he will then write what is "true."

The speaker then moves on to catalogue what he likes: sleeping, eating, drinking, and being in love. Furthermore, I enjoys such activities as working, reading, learning, and he like to "understand life"—all fine qualities that would likely impress a college instructor. He also likes to receive "a pipe for a Christmas present."

Finally, the speaker jots down that he enjoys getting records for Christmas and listening to music, which turns out to be rather eclectic from "Bessie, bop, or Bach." He must be simply gleeful that his music preferences create a nice series of alliteration.

Fourth Movement: Communication Between Black and White

The two lines, "I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races," make an vitally important, accurate statement, which if understood and applied could eliminate most of the racial strife that continues to plague 21st century America. His guess is obviously absolutely correct: race does not separate people because of what each race "likes." All races like and want individual freedom and the opportunity to achieve a standard of living that allows them to grow and prosper.

And it should be obvious that working for that standard cannot be different for the races. Division and strife are created artificially by the political class that seeks to pit groups, races, sexes, genders, and nationalities against one another in order to seize votes so that the politicians can gain power.

Natural differences can work themselves out if the politicians back off and allow a century-old civil-rights populace to function. The American melting pot is an old idea that still holds when Americans are allowed to employ their nature-God’s given freedom.

Nevertheless, this speaker, being the young man that still is, must continue to wonder, "will my page be colored that I write?" He will continue to wonder if the racial difference might hinder his communication with the white instructor.

Fifth Movement: Racial Boundaries

The speaker then insists that his writing will "not be white." Yet it must still be part of the instructor. Although he is black and the instructor is white, they are surely still part of each other because "That's American." Yet he does remain aware that often whites do not want to be part of blacks, and he is also aware that the reverse is equally true. Despite those racial boundaries of separation, the speaker believes that they are still part of each other, whether they accept it or not.

Finally, the speaker concludes with a very significant discernment: the black student learns from the white instructor, and the white instructor can also learn from the black student, even if the instructor is older, white, and "somewhat more free" than the black student. The speaker concludes by offering the bald statement, "This is my page for English B." He seems to feel that he has probably exhausted the truth for this assignment.

The Controversial Label, "African American"

Langston Hughes wrote this poem in 1951—37 years before the Reverend Jesse Jackson insisted that blacks begin calling themselves "African American."

The controversy surrounding the appellation, "African American," reached an important pinnacle after Teresa Heinz Kerry, Caucasian wife of then presidential candidate and former senator John Kerry, identified herself as "African American."

Teresa Heinz was born and raised in Mozambique, which is a country in Africa. Having been a resident of the USA since 1963, she qualifies most assuredly as an "African American." The fact that she is white demonstrates the wrong-headedness of Rev. Jackson, when he foisted that label on the black population of the United States of America.

Sources

Langston Hughes - Commemorative Stamp

Langston Hughes - Commemorative Stamp

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes