The teacher tells the speaker to go home and write a page tonight; this page should come from himself and be true. The speaker wonders if it is that simple. He begins by writing that he is twenty-two, "colored," and born and schooled in Winston-Salem, Durham, and at college in Harlem. He writes that he is the only "colored" student in his class. He walks down a hill into Harlem, crossing streets before arriving at the Harlem branch of the Y. He takes the elevator up to his room, which is where he is writing this page.
The speaker writes that at his young age, it is hard to know what is true for "you or me." He believes that the truth is what he hears, feels and sees in Harlem – "hear you, hear me – we two – you, me, talk on this page." He hears New York. He likes to eat, drink, sleep, be in love, work, read, learn, and "understand life." He likes receiving pipes and records (Bessie Smith, Bach or bop) as Christmas presents. Just because he is "colored" does not mean he does not like the same things that people of other races like. He wonders if his page will be "colored" because it is his and he is not white.
The speaker writes that his page will be a part of his white instructor and a part of himself, since he is a part of the instructor – "That's American." Sometimes the instructor does not want to be a part of the speaker and sometimes he does not want to be a part of the instructor, but they are a part of one another, and that is the truth. They learn from each other, even though the instructor is older, white, and "somewhat more free."
He concludes, "This is my page for English B."
“Theme for English B” is without a doubt one of Langston Hughes’s most famous, beloved, and anthologized poems. He wrote it in 1951, the evening of his career, and it addresses one of his most ubiquitous themes – the American Dream. Thematically, "Theme for English B" resembles “American Heartbreak” and “Let America Be America Again.” The poem is written in free verse and lacks a systematic form or meter; its language is simple and casual, and it flows in a stream-of-consciousness style.
The narrative centers on a young student whose instructor has asked him to write a page about himself with the caveat that the page ought to be “true.” The speaker reflects on himself, noting that he is twenty-two years old, "colored," and born in Winston-Salem, N.C. He lists the schools he has gone to and explains that he is currently a student in New York (he probably attends Columbia University or City College of New York). As he walks home, he realizes that he is the only "colored" student in his class. This was a common occurrence during the Jim Crow era, because African Americans had more difficulty gaining entrance into elite schools than their white peers.
On his page, the speaker begins by expressing the his belief that it is hard to know what is true at such a young age. He identifies himself with Harlem, evoking the sounds and sights of the city, claiming to hear Harlem, and, in fact - all of New York. While he feels like an anomaly at school, he fits in within Harlem, which is where he is most content. He lists some of the commonplace but meaningful things he likes to do – eat, sleep, “understand life,” listen to music – and points out that being "colored" does preclude him from liking the same things that white people like.
The speaker's musings become more philosophical as he wonders, “So will my page be colored that I write?” He knows that his perspective is not the same as his white instructor's, but observes that he and his instructor are linked, whether they like it or not - through his writing and in the fact that they are both Americans. He recognizes that they can both learn from each other even though the instructor has the superficial advantages of being older, white, and “more free.”
Through this poem, Langston Hughes asserts that there are multiple types of Americans, and there is no singular defining "American" experience. Black, white, young, old, oppressed, free – all can strive for a piece of the American Dream. This poem is thus much more optimistic than some of Hughes's other writings on this subject; however, it also is a bit more ambiguous than it initially might appear. Critic Tanfer Emin Tunc writes that there are “other aspects of [the speaker’s] life that can only be inferred."
Tunc points out that the speaker writes about attending different schools in North Carolina before moving to New York, a pattern that traces the Great Migration of African Americans from their homes in the South to urban centers in the North like New York and Chicago. The lack of more specific facts makes the speaker’s experiences more universal, and his claim that he and his teacher are a part of each other “simultaneously affirms a common experience with white America while also resisting the impulse to justify his life to that culture and reshape himself in that image.” Overall, the young speaker is trying to figure himself out, as well as grasp the holistic identity of his multifaceted and complicated country.
Bookending my higher education experience is a common situation: finding myself in an intense dialogue with the professor and then realizing I was essentially the only student participating in that discussion.
As a first-year (actually first semester) student, Mr. Pruitt and I were enthusiastically exploring Henry David Thoreau, and maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson. During a doctoral course on educational theory, Dr. Holton and I were wrestling with Joseph Schwab.
My life as a student was mostly a good one, and I needed little prompting to enjoy learning or to appreciate and marvel at my teachers and professors—this the result of being a mama’s boy, she my first and a wonderful teacher.
During my junior and senior years as an undergraduate, Dr. Nancy Moore—short hair, button-down collar shirts, and slacks—was a recurring professor in my program. Nancy was incredibly kind to me, supportive and complimentary in a way that lifted me out of my essential low self-esteem.
Nancy’s courses, as well, were my first introductions to diverse literature—Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Toni Morrison.
Although a nearly terminal redneck, I was a white, male student who had been gifted (both genetically and culturally) the socially valued verbal and mathematical skills considered “smart.” And thus, my venture into formal education was mostly unlike that of Langston Hughes.
Revisiting “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
The Harlem Renaissance and Langston Hughes’s life-/career-span (1902-1967) likely seems to be the distant past for many high school or undergraduate students. But one of the most powerful aspects of poetry by Hughes for me is how present his work is, every time I return to it.
As a reader and a poet, I am drawn to work that appears simple (as if anyone could have written it) and simultaneously reveals that only this poet could have shaped this verse, that the accessible words and phrasing disguise something rich, complex, and enduring.
“The instructor said,” opens “Theme for English B”—establishing one of the poem’s major themes, the imbalance of power.
“Theme for English B” is a narrative in poetic form that weaves race, place, and power in order to challenge the inequity inherent in all “[t]hat’s American.”
The writing prompt at the opening of the poem strikes me as surreal—far too open and inviting for what traditionally is a writing prompt in English courses, but Hughes immediately shakes the reader: “I wonder if it’s that simple?” because “I am the only colored student in my class.”
And now the poem runs.
The poem’s speaker details his race and his place (actually places) in order to confront truth:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
The poem has now complicated the speaker’s situation with both black/white and South/North dichotomies—the latter, I think, is wonderfully enriched by also reading Countee Cullen’s “Incident.”
For the speaker, despite the careful outlining of his humanity as beyond racial or regional stereotypes, the issue remains, “So will my page be colored that I write?/Being me, it will not be white.”
There is a tinge of defiance along with both youthful exuberance and wiseness beyond his 22 years, and then a heavy awareness by the end:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
As a writer/poet and teacher, I am then profoundly—and every time I re-read this poem—moved by the last line signifying that this student under the weight of race, place, and an unfair imbalance or power has submitted an essay that is true in the same simple language used to open the poem: “This is my page for English B.”
A poem that is a student’s college essay—this becomes an enduring lesson about race, place, and the imbalance of power.
Culturally Responsive Teaching: The Harlem Renaissance in an Urban English Class, Andrea J. Stairs