Langston Hughes: “Theme for English B”

See image credit below.

Oh, how I love this poem! It packs so much into a short space. Published on its own in 1949, it was included in Langston Hughes’s 1951 collection, Montage of a Dream Deferred. Though it gains more resonance when taken with the entire collection of Hughes’s bebop poetry, it also stands successfully on its own.

In “Theme for English B,” Hughes imagines a 22-year-old black student – a transplant from North Carolina – living at the Harlem Y and going to college. He is the only “colored” student in his class at Columbia University, where Hughes himself had been a less-than-satisfied student in the 1920s.

In the poem, Hughes plays with the idea of using writing – words on paper – as a tool to bridge racial, social, class, and educational differences. Through the “theme” the young man is writing, his professor – white and well educated – has the opportunity to learn from his black, yet to be fully “educated” student.

Like so many other writing teachers, the professor tells his students to write what they know. He says:

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

The student goes back to his room at the Y and writes his essay, naming things he likes, including music: “Bessie, bop, or Bach.” Being black doesn’t mean he doesn’t like Bach, but there’s a hint here that he may have even greater access to cultural experiences than the white professor, for the student has his foots in two worlds – the white university and Harlem. Though they are located right next to each other, they are nevertheless worlds apart.

Or are they worlds apart? Hughes’s poem seems to hold out the promise that through words on the page, the student and his professor can bridge the cultural, social, economic, perhaps even the racial chasm that would seem on the surface to separate them. Reflecting on his passions, the things that shape his identity, the student writes:

I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.

I especially love that Hughes seems to have Walt Whitman in mind. Just as Whitman imagined speaking to readers across time through his words on the page (in poems like “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”), so, too, Hughes imagines written language as a vehicle to bridge gaps and allow us to learn about the seemingly unknowable “other.” The student says:

I guess I’m what
I 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.)

In some ways, as this student constructs a fledgling understanding of himself, as he imagines his identity into existence, the poem is an African American answer to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” – the young black student “singing” his experiences. He makes clear that he and the professor are both American. The student says:

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!

For ideas on teaching “Theme for English B” within the context of bebop music, an insurgent African American form of urban jazz, see Eric Otto’s fine article in Teaching American Literature. And to explore many other resources related to Hughes and his poetry, visit the StoryWeb episode on Montage of a Dream Deferred, the collection in which “Theme for English B” appears.

Listen:Listen as playwright Jermaine Ross reads Langston Hughes’s poem “Theme for English B.” Visit Atlanta-based Jermaine Ross’s website to learn more about his work.

 

Image Credit: Langston Hughes, photo by Jack Delano (from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction #LC-USZ62-43605).

 

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