In order to fully understand what Langston Hughes conveys in his poem “Theme for English B” one must understand who the author is and where he is coming from historically. Hughes was a staple in the Harlem community, and a major player in the Harlem Renaissance-a coming-of-age for African American creativity in the throughout the 1920’s and ’30’s. He is 47 by the time he writes this poem (not actually for the assignment’s due date) and it serves as both an educational and reflective vehicle-a voice that tells the how and why of not only what was happening during the time of his class but what was happening during the time he penned the piece.
The first stanza of “Theme for English B” is composed of what “the instructor said.” It is a rigid, although thoughtful, assignment: write a page about yourself. Hughes has done something deliberate in his choice of margining; he has taken the professor’s words and offset them into a quatrain of iambs. Surely the instructor of this English class is caught up in his own rigidityÃ¢Â?Â¦ a consequence of too many Victorian poetry lessons, perhapsÃ¢Â?Â¦ or it may be that Hughes is implying a certain jovial quality to the assignment that either he or the instructor, or both, are partaking in (free-writing a page about oneself isn’t necessarily an assignment to be taken too seriously). More importantly, it is left open for interpretation and also serves as a mockery from an uptight racist, sardonically coming down on his only Black student. The author makes it clear that he and his professor are not on the same plane.
Despite the inequity, Hughes rises to a higher level. In the beginning of the second stanza, where his stream of consciousness begins, he is forced to ask himself, “I wonder if it’s that simple?” (l. 1). He initiates juxtaposition and shows that, indeed, it is not. He describes his present situation: his age, how he has come into the class, and where he currently resides in Harlem by utilizing free-verse; implementing a poetic shift towards modernity that speaks from the heart of
Harlem ‘s streets, rather than emulating the instructor’s style. An element of jazz rings true in Hughes’ utilization of a unique assonance regarding the vowel sounds [ ] and [ ], which remains throughout the poem. Phrases like “I wonderÃ¢Â?Â¦” (l. 1), “I amÃ¢Â?Â¦” (l. 2) and “I wentÃ¢Â?Â¦” (l. 3) lead up to a strong passage where he uses two [ ] sounds, declaring “I am the only colored student in my class.” (l. 5). This stands out as revealing moment for who the author truly is and how he will affect things from hereon.
In the second half of the second stanza there is a reversal in the placement of assonance, switching from [ ] before [ ] in lines such as “I am twenty-two,” (l. 7) to [ ] before [ ] in later passages, “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” (ll. 12-14). By putting himself (I) at the end of the lines he is, in turn, acknowledging the setting before himself. He leaves the classroom dominated by White people, passes through St. Nicholas (an area vastly populated by upper class Whites at the time), and goes through
-an area beaming with Black culture. This was the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance; a place where some of ‘s greatest authors and poets cultivated their literary skills.
Hughes begins his third stanza by introducing a third sound of assonance, [ ], thus taking the poem to an even higher level. He uses it to contrast words like ‘you’ and ‘me’, illustrating the conflict at hand-specifically racism. But he too is conflicted; he implies this by repeating that he is ‘twenty-two’ (twent -t ) and internalizes it by stating that it’s “my age” (l. 17). He continues, “But I guess I’m what I feel and see and hear,
, I hear you:” (ll. 17-18). Like in the second stanza, there is a distinct reversal at the end. He isn’t just speaking to
; he’s acknowledging all those affected by its flourishing, including White people (specifically his English B class).
He continues “hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.” (l. 19). Here the assonance ceases to remain in its singular form and it swells into a progressive resonance. The vowels switch sides, are pushed together, and the lyrics provide an understanding-a common ground. Yet there is a heavier weight on the [ ] sound that occurs in “hear me.” This serves as the yearning for the author to be heard, to be respected by his White neighbors and classmates with whom he equates himself. “I hear
too. Me—who?” he continues; although he is but a simple twenty-two-year-old student who is Black, he is making a kinetic statement-one that is reverberating westward, across the
Hughes’ message of unity is based on the simple things that everyone can relate to, regardless of superficial complications precipitated by society. “Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love./ I like to work, read, learn and understand life.” (ll. 21-22). He follows by tying in religion, “I like a pipe for a Christmas present,/” and music, “or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.” (ll. 23-24). To reiterate, Hughes writes “I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like/ the same things other folk like who are other races.” (ll. 25-26). Although he is directing this all towards the instructor of his class Hughes does it very discreetly by almost entirely omitting the [ ] sound from his use of assonance. Rather, he desires to keep these lines closer to himself in a manner that is both introspective and focused on the assignment for his class.
“So will my page be colored that I write?” he must ask himself (l. 27). “Being me, it will not be white.” (l. 28). Hughes, in another twist, demonstrates that although his intelligence matches (or perhaps is even beyond) that of his White classmates, and that he does yearn for equality, that it is impossible to ignore the racial divide. “But it will be/ a part of you, instructor./ You are white—/ yet a part of me, as I am a part of you./ That’s American.” (ll. 29-33). He uses the written page as a vehicle for unity on the ground that a page, in itself, is a vehicle that contains both black and white-whether it be color of the font on the paper or the bilateral opposites that give the writing depth. Indeed the tenor is the ideal of the American way.
But the story of racial struggle is still being written, in places much farther away than Langston Hughes’ room at the YMCA in
Harlem and long after his death in 1967. “Theme for English B” is timeless in its narrative, but more importantly in its lesson. “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./ As I learn from you,/ I guess you learn from me—/ although you’re older— and white—/ and somewhat more free.” (ll. 34-40).
With Hughes ending the poem simply, “This is my page for English B.” he leaves the reader holding a figurative embodiment of America in his/her hands, knowing that what lies on the sheet doesn’t necessarily matter as much as what it communicates to the mind and spirit-a calling for justice and expressive freedom.