By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Theme for English B’ is a 1951 poem by Langston Hughes (1901-67), one of the leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance. In the poem, a young African-American man studying at a college in Harlem describes the piece of homework his white teacher gave his class, which involved going home and writing a ‘true’ page.
You can read ‘Theme for English B’ here (the poem takes around one minute to read). Below, we offer a summary and analysis of this quintessential Langston Hughes poem.
‘Theme for English B’: summary
The speaker of the poem is twenty-two and African-American. He was born in Winston-Salem in North Carolina and attended school there, before going to Durham, in the same US state. After that he came to the college where he is currently studying, on a ‘hill above Harlem’ in New York.
His teacher gives the class some homework: to go home and write a page that evening, writing from the heart, so that what the students write will therefore be true. But the speaker of the poem wonders if it’s as easy as all that. After outlining his brief life history to us, specifically his educational history, he points out that he is the only Black student in his class.
He then describes his journey home from the college, walking down the hill and into Harlem, through the park, and then across St Nicholas Avenue, Eighth Avenue, Seventh Avenue, until he comes to ‘the Y’, the Harlem branch of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). He goes up to his room, sits down, and writes a page, as instructed by his college teacher.
He writes on the page what he has already told us: that it isn’t easy to determine what is true when he, the speaker of the poem, is still so young. But he realises that who he is amounts to the same as what his experiences are, around Harlem. Indeed, he sees himself as being in a dialogue with Harlem as he writes, and more broadly, with the whole of New York City.
And who is he? He writes that he likes to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love, as well as to work, read, learn, and to understand life. He likes receiving a pipe to smoke with, as a Christmas gift, or some music records to play. He is equally fond of Bessie Smith’s jazz and blues, and of bebop, a popular African-American genre of music, as he is of Johann Sebastian Bach’s classical music.
So, he comes to realise, being Black doesn’t mean he is disinclined to like the same sort of things that white people like. Will the page he writes these observations on be defined by his race? Because the page is him – his thoughts, it will not be white. (Hughes utilises some clever wordplay here: in filling the white page with black ink, by writing on it, he is, in a sense, inscribing his identity as a Black person onto the page.)
But the speaker concludes that what he writes will be formed partly by his white teacher, too: he is white, and he is a part of the speaker, just as the speaker is part of him. And that is what it means to be American. It doesn’t matter that sometimes they don’t especially want to view themselves as linked to each other in this way: they are, whether they like it or not. And that is true.
And just as he learns from his instructor, so his instructor learns from his student, the speaker. Even though he’s older, and he’s white, and therefore freer than the young Black speaker, the teacher still has things to learn from his young student. And with that, the speaker finds that he has written his page of homework for his ‘English B’ class.
‘Theme for English B’: analysis
‘Theme for English B’ belongs to Langston Hughes’ later career, and he was nearly fifty when the poem was published. The speaker of his poem, by contrast, is just twenty-two: a young man of the next generation growing up in Harlem. However, Hughes himself knew what it was to live as a young man in Harlem, and, whilst the poem is not strictly autobiographical, the poet could draw on a deep well of experiences involving that part of New York.
In the poem, the Black speaker addresses or apostrophises his white instructor or college tutor. Apostrophe is a rhetorical device whereby a speaker addresses someone in a dramatic way: often someone who is absent, as the speaker’s teacher is in the poem itself. This is especially significant in ‘Theme for English B’ because the issue of race is so central to the speaker’s way of formulating his understanding of America, and he, a young Black man, is talking to his white instructor, perhaps with more freedom than he would have in the class itself while face-to-face with him.
A key element of ‘Theme for English B’ is America itself. Hughes’ speaker comes to realise that such dialogues between black and white, much like the ‘dialogue’ between black ink and white paper as he composes his assignment on the page, is what makes America what it is.
It is a country of racial difference but also of shared similarities: he is both other than his white teacher (who could never share exactly the same experiences as a young Black student) and bonded to him by a commonality, not just by their both being American but by their shared access to ‘white’, European culture (the reference to ‘Bach’ alongside ‘Bessie’ Smith).
‘Theme for English B’: form
Like the majority of Langston Hughes’ poems, ‘Theme for English B’ is written in free verse: it lacks a rhyme scheme or any regular metre or rhythm, and the line and stanza lengths are also irregular. Hughes preferred to write in this style, and was partly influenced by the rhythms of jazz music – so important to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s of which he was a key part – in composing his free-verse poetry.
This gives the poem a loose, conversational feel which is entirely in keeping with the colloquial tone of the poem (indeed, it’s sometimes analysed as a dramatic monologue, because we can picture the speaker of the poem sitting at his desk with his pen in hand, speaking the poem aloud to his instructor as he composes his assignment).
However, ‘free’ verse is very rarely completely free, for all great poetry contains artistic control and some sort of structure. In the case of ‘Theme for English B’, we can detect a certain consonance between ‘Winston-Salem’, ‘Harlem’, and ‘Harlem’ (repeated) at the ends of the lines in the first stanza; similarly, ‘St. Nicholas’ plays off ‘class’ (which is almost an abbreviation of ‘Nic’las’), while later in the poem we even get full rhymes (‘you’ and ‘who’; ‘write’ and ‘white’; ‘true’ and ‘you’; ‘me’ and ‘free’).
It is worth pondering the significance of these occasional moments of rhyme which assert themselves among the free-forming unrhymed lines as the speaker thinks through his attitude to race and America: it is as if things are falling into place (to ‘write’ upon the ‘white’ page is to couple white with black; his instructor is more ‘free’ than ‘me’, i.e., the speaker), that through writing his page, the speaker is realising what he thinks.