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Poetry Analysis: Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B"



Langston Hughes penned "Theme for English B" in 1949.The poem is in the imperative. 'English' in the poem is emblematic of comprehensiveness and universality. This analysis exemplifies how the poem is a satire on the system of grading with regard to individuals and phenomenon; and utilizes language as a powerful metaphor to echo the same. The criteria for grading is the quality of being true or original.The theme is reminiscent of Plato's Theory of Ideas. The English language is emphasized to be beyond categorization or grading (A,B) through the technique of meiosis.In this context, the poet voices through understatement that the whites consider themselves to be the original inhabitants or true, as opposed to the blacks who were treated as secondary citizens or duplicates.


Contrary to various views, the speaker in Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B" is an imaginary one as conceived by the poet: the poem is not autobiographical as some critics make it out to be. The narrator is supposed to be 'born in Winston-Salem', whereas the poet had his roots in Joplin, Missouri. The university referred to in the poem is not Columbia University. It is rather, the City College of New York ,Manhattan. Arnold Rampersad, the editor of Langston Hughes' anthology entitled Collected Poems underlines the fact that the university that figures in "Theme for English B" is the City College at the highest hill on Manhattan and that the poem was penned during his sojourn to the same during the 30th Annual Langston Hughes Festival.


The title of "Theme for English B" stresses the existence of an 'English A' that renders it as the standard English or default,and all others inferior to the same. In such a context, English A seems natural which is why the instructor asks the student to create a medium of language that if it comes from the writer will be authentic. A blank page in such a stance becomes symbolic for a newborn black.If he imbibes his own language,he is rejected;if he imbibes the language of the whites he poses as an adopted or foster child of culture and nature.

The view of the instructor is also a revolt against New Critics who separated the author and text and declared emphatically that the text is autonomous.The poet here not only reiterates the significance of the writer but also the phenomenon of honesty,creativity and originality.The speaker here wonders as to how simple the process can be.

He ruminates that at the tender age of 22 his thought-process may not be as stable and true and may be far from the instructor's preconceived notions regarding him , because his insight in terms of maturity is limited to the fewer years of his life. He cannot even claim that his learning is localized or compartmentalized so as to be put into ink because he "went to school there, then Durham, then here to this college on the hill above Harlem." To cap it all, he was singular in his class as the only colored student and therefore was a classic insignia of the minority. According to the ways of the world,his view may be deemed the truth only if politically correct, coherent and conformist with the majority. He is thus caught in a state of identity crisis. He expresses a mechanized routine devoid of emotions:

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:

The speaker opines that at the age of 22, it was not simple to comprehend the meaning of truth. Truth was sometimes subjective and could have different manifestations to different psyches. He ponders over whether he really was the person he perceived through his sensory perceptions. He connects with Harlem, the primary resort and roots of the Black Renaissance. the speaker communicates with Harlem and Harlem responds back. The poet puts within parentheses that the speaker hears New York too. The poet utilizes brackets to highlight the element of secrecy,,as though he is reluctant to declare it openly. Nevertheless, New York does not affirm or recognize his existence: "(I hear New York too.) Me---who?"

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The speaker is akin to his counterparts in that he loves to and is accustomed to the basic functions of life: eat, sleep drink an be in love; or likes to "work, read, learn, and understand life." Labelled as an African American,he is a part of marginalized races that strive for recognition. He too adores a classy present such as a pipe as a Christmas present. Or enjoys music like other sophisticated folk -" records---Bessie, bop, or Bach." Bessie and Bop was popular among the coloured people and 'Bach" was the favorite of the white people. What Langston Hughes desires and aspires for is an amalgamation of both cultures.

It was not that his quality of being colored made him any different from his counterparts. The capitalization of 'NOT' emphasizes the fact and the special stress on double negative alludes to his positivity and the negation of such a hypothesis.

The speaker poses a rhetorical question as to whether the page that he would fill in would be be colored as he writes. He claims that coming from him, it would not be white. However it would be a part of the instructor who is white. The page functions here as an apt and beautiful metaphor for cultural integration as employed by Langston Hughes. The blank white paper stands for the quality of being white, the writing over it constitutes the aspect of being colored.Thus each aspect complements the other lending significance to the other and defines the other as writing manifests itself across the page.Both black and white are incomplete without the other and defines the other. The written page thereby stands for the quality of being American, an America that represents unity in diversity: "That's American."

Langston Hughes states that sometimes the instructor does not want to be a part of him, and vice versa. Nevertheless, they were indubitably a part of each other-and THAT is the ultimate Truth. As human beings they imbibed meaning and imparted each other with value as they learned from each other. This, in spite of the fact that the instructor appears to be all that the speaker is not:

older---and white---

and somewhat more free.

© Rukhaya MK 2012

The content is the copyright of Rukhaya MK. Any line reproduced from the article has to be appropriately documented by the reader. ©Rukhaya MK. All rights reserved.

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Rukhaya M K (author) from India on February 10, 2013:

@anonymous: Thank you.

anonymous on February 09, 2013:

Thank you for this lens! I love Langston Hughes. He should be more widely read. My favorite is "Life Ain't Been No Crystal Stair."

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