#60 Theme for English B (Langston Hughes)

When a colleague asked me a few years ago for an example of a poem that works as an implicit argument, my mind went directly to Langston Hughes‘s “Theme for English B”. It’s not that Hughes‘s poem makes a case for a position, exactly, as that it replicates what writers go through when they are doing “invention” for an argument: trying to think through their ideas in response to a “rhetorical situation”: here, the very familiar rhetorical situation of being given an assignment by an English teacher.

Does “Theme for English B” do too much “meaning” and not enough “being”? I don’t think so. Note the instructions for this writing assignment: “let that page come out of you – / Then, it will be true.” The speaker’s writing teacher is an “expressivist.” He (probably literally “he,” in the 1920s) wants the students just to write. But the student, “the only colored student in my class,” doesn’t find it that easy. The speaker has to consider every aspect of his social situation – age, race, region, nation – before he can start to write his “page.” At the end of the page, he has done almost nothing but account for his “diverse” identities.

“Theme for English B” addresses the question I raised near the start of this semester, one of universals. Can the same supposedly universal writing assignment really be the same for everyone who hears it? Or does the question of difference in identity enter everything we do? “That’s American,” the poem’s speaker asserts. Is it?

Don’t, by the way, equate the speaker of the poem with Langston Hughes. Hughes indeed attended Columbia University, which is the setting of the poem, and was one of the few black students there. But he was born in Missouri, far from Winston-Salem, and grew up in the Midwest, not in the South. The speaker shares some of Hughes’s experiences, but he’s forged also from Hughes’s imagination.

This poem is freer in form than any we’ve looked at so far. It doesn’t rhyme, and the lines are of different lengths and rhythms. The speaker seems to write it as simply and directly as possible, as if replicating what a 22-year-old college student might actually write. But as with Frost’s poetry, there is a great deal of craft in seeming as simple and direct as possible. A real student might try to sound more academic or intellectual, or perhaps more vernacular. Not many college students can look so directly at themselves and be so open! I sense in this poem a sort of looking back and doing what one might have done, in one’s youth: a saying what one should have said at the time.

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13 responses to “#60 Theme for English B (Langston Hughes)

  1. I’ll make the comparison of a white male trying to pass in a diverse class such as Langston Hughes’ poem and situation. The questions would not grant us the exact feeling of being in the shoes and thoughts of that man or that woman at that point in time. We could only guess and suggest some of the assumptions behind the known facts considering the way things are. Facts like being white among blacks or being black among whites could be uncomfortable for some. Langston Hughes would not only be smart enough to pass my class as a white man, but he could actually be the smartest. Yet being taught as a black person that you will not succeed if you don’t learn what white people know has struggle written all over it. Similar to a white person justifying what it means to be accepted among blacks. If you’re seen as smart as a black man, you might lose some friends along the way and you might gain friends that will help bring you through. Some students just fit into certain groups. It’s just the way that things are formed. As a person different from their ideal race, they identify race from a different perspective. If you’re Langston Hughes, being black could get you an “F”. So the poem expresses the fear of identity from both angles. The fear of being accepted as a black man but also passing a black student as a white teacher in a class of whites during eras of oppression.

  2. I can relate well to this poem by Langston Hughes because I was also in the same predicament as the speaker. I was the only black student during my high school senior year. My high school was predominantly made up of Caucasians. I didn’t really know what to expect or how to relate with all these other students because I had never been in such environment; so I kept to myself for a while. But then after, I realized that it wasn’t bad and the others weren’t bad at all–they were nice, relatable, and they had the same interests as I did. This is just like the case of the speaker who found it hard to open up because he was faced and put in a situation and environment that he wasn’t used to. I think that he finally realized–just like I did–that he was like the other students; without regards to race. I feel like after that realization the speaker was able to open up more and feel a little at ease with himself knowing that all people regardless of race are equal. And I think that this applies to life; we will all feel comfortable among each other if we accept each other. I feel like universal writing assignment isn’t the same for everyone because we all have our different style, language, and tone of writing; and most of the times these differences could reflect our identities and background. For example, slangs or terms used by a writer could reflect his or her background or culture.

  3. Someone can feel different because if their race, color, ethnicity, and gender. One can even feel different because of a physical handicap. All of these reasons that make one feel different make up one’s identity. Thought processes are different. Someone who is “different” may feel like they want to be a part of someone/something yet at the same time, because of what makes them so different, they may not want to be a part of someone/something else. It is a sense of fear and rejection. They may feel isolated and alone. It is true when Langston Hughes writes, “I like to eat, sleep, drink and be in love. I like to work, read, learn and understand life.” We all want the same things in life as mentioned in the poem. We may be different, but we all want that acceptance and love. One can even be of the same race, ethnicity, etc., yet be different. We are each our own individual and unique person. Being the only colored person in a class may seem uncomfortable for someone who might not be comfortable with themselves. One may feel singled out and under a microscope and feel that their work, whatever it might be, is not going to be good enough. It may turn out to be better than others but because one is unsure of themselves they feel that others are expecting it to be different. In this assignment because writing was supposed to express who the person was, fear of rejection made it difficult. It was a sense of “hey..we are different but we are the same” and at the same time it was a little of “I’m different and because of that I am probably not going to get a good grade” kind of expression. Again, we are all different yet long for the same kind of acceptance.

  4. As you ask, “Can the same supposedly universal writing assignment really be the same for everyone who hears it? Or does the question of difference in identity enter everything we do?” Is that American?
    The difference in identity did affect everything in the 1920’s. I think it is more than American, it is human, because of distinct differences in cultural, social, and racial upbringing. First, no the writing assignment cannot be the same for all students because it is requested to “let the page come out of you, then it will be true”. The only way for one to write such a page would be to write from one’s own experiences and perspective. Every person will have their own viewpoints and experiences based on their ethnic origin, social upbringing, and cultural connections at the time of writing the paper. The writer of this paper is the only black in his class and it would be nearly impossible for him/her to write without that factoring into their viewpoint. Especially in the 1920’s, racial divide was very strong in America. Evident by them being the only black in the class. In today’s society racial divide is still present but not a daily focus, but still, one cannot expect a writing of this nature to be the same because the differences(social, ethnic, cultural) are all the same today. One’s viewpoint of life is very much affected and stimulated by the way they are taught or raised to view life and people of other races regardless of the socio-economic status. Differences cannot be ignored even if we wanted to. However, the differences should also not be the focus because the point remains the we are all the same, human beings.

    Darius Lowe

  5. A student in the 1920s being asked to write a page and let that page come out of you be true is different for an African American student. To me that is asking that person to open themself up to more judgement and rejection from their peers and instructors. Langston Hughes is saying I like and dislike the same things as a typical twenty-two year old. My color maybe different and what I have to say maybe different due to the fact of where I have been placed in society. He ask the question “will my page be colored that I write?” Saying will you be looking for how a colored person write, will my writing de different from my fellow peers? Of course it will be you have already perceived my truth to be different. Even in todays society we look at different cultures and races and view them as being very different from who we are. But do we really know who we are, once we get to know who they are? As mentioned we may not want to be a part of each other but in reality we are in some form or another.

  6. In this poem the student that is asked to write the paper is the only black student in the class and does not feel like he or she will get a good grade. I think that the student feel lost on what to say and what not to say. The student feels like an outsider being the only black in the class. I feel that these situations still occur today in our society. When one is around their own race they don’t feel like an outsider. But when one is around others and they are the only one of their race, they feel like an outsider. I have been in a situation similar to this were I was the only African American in my class and it made me feel like an outsider. I believe any one can feel like this regardless of their race. I think that the student wants the teacher to understand how they are feeling and that is why the student mentioned race in his or her paper.

  7. I truly believe that the same supposedly universal writing assignment cannot really be the same for everyone who hears it? The difference in our identities enter into everything we do? It is “American.” We are all unique individuals and no two people are going to think or feel the exact same thing. Sure, there may be several people who think alike, but never exact same things. The probability of two people thinking of a similar idea for a topic on a school assignment is much higher if their social life, ethnic background, age, and gender are similar. However, if you ask two people in different social groups, with different ethnic backgrounds, age and gender to write a paper it is very likely that the results will show vast differences. I have a perfect example. My high school speech instructor gave an assignment to write a speech on what mattered most to us at that moment. I grew up in a small town where High School Football was very important. 90% of my peers in that speech class were varsity football players. I was not. One by one my classmates went to the front of the classroom to deliver their speech. Every football player gave a speech on FOOTBALL. Of course not every word in each speech was exactly like any of the other speeches. Some took the assignment to mean “What physical object meant most the most to you.” So, some students talked about their football helmet or the football itself. Some people didn’t take it that way so they gave a speech explaining why ‘Teamwork’ or just playing football was the thing that mattered most to them at that moment. Still, the main topic of all their speeches somehow related to football. Well, I am not male and I was not a football player. So, my speech was very different from the others. Just as I imagine the speaker in this poems was much different from his peers. The line from this poem that really caught my attention was, “And let that page come out of you – then, it will be true.” What we right about is our own truths. While it may not be true of someone else, it is still true to us, because it is what we thought of writing. Even in the case of fiction writings. They are still our own truths because they were made up by our own imagination.

  8. I really like this poem especially because it is written by Langston Hughes. Although I am not a huge poetry buff, this author is one that I have heard on numerous occasions. Theme for English B is very well written and easy to read. It centers around an african american young man who is tasked with writing a page about himself for an english class. The poem starts by the author giving a little background as to who he is and where he came from. This was important because it set the stage for his explanation of why he is different from the other students and the instructor himself. He describes his living conditions which I suspect was done to show the differences in his lifestyle and those in the class.
    He then goes on to explain why he and those in the class are alike by telling about those things that he likes; such as eating, sleeping, being in love as well as working, eating and music.
    He ends the poem asking the question: Will my page be colored? I believe that he wanted to show the instructor that although his skin color was different from the other students, he himself was really no different. He wanted to ensure that they understood that he was just as American as the next person and because of that, all of us are a part of each other whether we want to be or not.

  9. “Theme For English B” is a great poem by Langston Hughes. The question about whether or not someone’s work is judged based on their skin color is a very valid question. I personally think that prejudice and racism is a trait that is taught from childhood. Kids don’t know what racism is until taught to them by their elders. Children don’t judge each other by how light reflects off their peer’s skin, the ability to judge someone based on an uncontrollable circumstance is definitely not a birth trait! I believe that it was very rare to meet people/teachers/boss/etc. that don’t base work on work and not on color at the point of time this poem was written. A person’s background isn’t known most of the time, so judgment is based on first impression and looks. This poem touches on many of the problems back in the day, and some of them we still face! At least now if a black/brown/yellow/red person writes a paper, it is interpreted with an open mind and all paper is white.

  10. I really enjoyed reading this poem because it is unlike anything I have ever read. The poem that was written as an assignment from his professor. I really feel that I am Langston Hughes or I can really identify with him. I have never really experienced such a sensation from reading something. I like how he admits that at his age, twenty-two, he does not know a whole lot about himself and that all he really knows is his town of Harlem. He also does a good job of pointing out that just because of his color he still enjoys the same things that someone of another race would. When he says; “So will my page be colored that I write?”, I really did not know what to think of at first. I started to really think about what he was saying and I think it is a kind of metaphor for how he feels that it truly is a white persons world he lives in.

  11. I can relate to this poem, not because I am African American but because I too have faced sterotyping which is what I believe Hughes was facing. Also his point was very valid in that just because you are of a particular ethnicty does not mean you fit into one particular category in life. As long as you are human, every individual thinks differently and is unique in his or her own way. We co-exist to learn from each others thoughts, idea’s and differences. I appreciate Langston Hughes writing this poem for persons to realize just as we are different in many ways we are alike.

  12. The assignment the speaker is given can almost be said to have changed his life in some way. He begins as if he does not know who he is or how to describe himself on paper and sees himself separated from the rest of the class because he is the only black in the room. But as the speaker progresses in his writing, he soon finds that he is not so different from the others in the class. In fact, he realizes that he is probably quite similar and that race really does not make as much of a difference as he had previously believed. The speaker then addresses the issue of everyone being connected. “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./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!” Whether we like it or not, all of our actions and lives are intertwined. Therefore, we all are alike, at least in that one way. I think the speaker learned this from the assignment and even furthered his belief that maybe one day everyone else would understand this too.

  13. TO: cplummer
    I think about the different things that go along with being black. It is evident that revealing yourself to a person takes a lot out of you. You want to be accepted and you want to be able to find some justice in writing your piece. You also want someone to relate and get a warm feeling because of something you’ve done or experienced. When you’re black, sometimes you can focus on the negative things that people might think about you. Even when you find out what someone thinks it’s sometimes totally different from what you could have imagined in the first place. A lot of criticism comes from being you and wanting to be so good that everyone can see things the way you see it. People might say some things that catch your eye for a second, but what do they know about you besides the good person that you are regardless of appearance? What do they see behind the integrity and generated thought? Langston Hughes couldn’t change that he was born black in a world full of people that thought he was less than equal. He couldn’t change that he was the only African American student in that class but he can change the image of the African American society one by one. In writing his piece, he will experience writing during the 1920’s like no other black person will. He is graded differently, because he is different and comes from a different background. He might get a lower grade because not as many people can relate to his view, his style, and his pain.

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