August 13, 2004
Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B” is a poem about identity. The speaker explores the truth about himself through a writing assignment given to him by a college instructor. Throughout the poem the speaker struggles with the notion that he is black, but he is being influenced by his instructor and white society in general. This unnerves him because he doesn’t know what is true. However, through the writing assignment he comes to realize that there is no guarded border between black and white in America or in his life.
We are all influenced by the culture in which we grow up and learn. The speaker in “Theme for English B” carries with him the history of Winston-Salem, Durham, and the Harlem Branch Y. He’s been an underdog of sorts, but now he attends a college “on the hill above Harlem” (10), removed from his childhood and all the life he knew. Now he is faced with an instructor who is older, whiter, freer than he is, who presents him with the assignment to write a page from his heart, “Let that page come out of you,” the instructor says, “then it will be true” (4-5). All of a sudden, the speaker realizes he doesn’t know who he is or what will show up on paper. “I wonder if it’s that simple?” he asks (6).
A tantalizing question – Is it that simple? Is it simply a matter of writing out what you feel and relying on that to reveal truth, as the instructor seems to think? The speaker doesn’t know, because he’s caught between two different worlds. A pressing dilemma lies before him: which world is true? He is torn between Harlem and college. He grew up in Harlem, but his instructor is infiltrating his world. He even writes his page for English B in the Harlem setting. Both worlds mold his reality, and if he writes about simply one or the other he can’t be true to himself. He wants to be black and identify with his Harlem heritage, but he is bound by the fact that he studies in a predominantly white setting which has made an impact on him.
I’m not black. I don’t know exactly what it’s like to be discriminated against or to live in a poor neighborhood, and, honestly, I’m probably stereotyping the speaker according to the second hand information I’ve received about the Black American experience. Despite all this I find myself identifying with the speaker. I know myself to be defined by my surroundings and the product of mixed experiences. I’ve lived overseas, studied in secular and Christian institutions, and come in contact with many different people with drastically different ideas. I have been caught between two different cultures, though not as drastically different as those in which the speaker finds himself caught, and I have wondered what it is that makes me who I am. The answer: all of it.
The speaker doesn’t immediately admit that he can be a product of both worlds. More than halfway through the poem he asks, “So will my page be colored that I write?” (27), suggesting that he’s not sure if the white culture he has experienced will come out of himself as truth. This could be racial tension in the poem. He’s been labeled with stereotypes by a white-dominated society, which is apparent by the fact that he is the only colored student in his English class (11). Naturally, he’s hesitant to admit any ties with the dominant society, but he cannot escape them. Apart from location the speaker can’t distinguish between white and black influences on his tastes. In an attempt to resolve his sudden identity crisis, he lists everything in which he takes pleasure: eating, sleeping, drinking, being in love, working, reading, learning, pipes for Christmas, and music as different as Bessie is from bop is from Bach. They are jumbled together – juxtaposed in a succession of sentences – and in the end he has to admit, “Being colored doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races” (25-26). In fact, the first half of his list consists of general concepts that just about anyone of the human race would agree are good.
Thus, he comes to the question, “Will my page be colored that I write?” Of course, the page can’t be white because he is not white; however, he says, “It will be / a part of you, instructor” (29-30). This is not a tentative revelation. The line ends with a period, a sign of finality just as in the two lines following: “You are white – / yet a part of me, as I am part of you” (31-32). The speaker not only sees himself in a new light, but he recognizes that his instructor and Americans in general, share this mutual identity.
From my experiences overseas and taking general sociology and psychology courses, I would like to apply this principle to humanity in general – people who live in close proximity with one another can’t escape borrowing and lending ideas. The speaker indirectly expresses this point when he says “I hear you; / I hear you, hear me – we two – you and me, talk on this page” (18-19). People, in general, unwittingly make impressions on each other through speech, actions, gestures and more. However, the speaker seems content to leave this phenomenon in the American context. To be a part of someone else is “American” (33), period. Indeed, removing the poem from its context would require ignoring the connotations that “black” and “white” have in the American setting. The high level of tension between the two groups, especially in 1949 when the poem was written, serves to heighten the anxiety of the speaker and justify his tentative word meandering to the final solution.
The final solution is a result of the speaker writing out his thoughts. The poem reads almost as a train of thought. It seems as though the speaker is working through his anxiety about the assignment as he writes. The act of writing helps the speaker to understand what is true about his life. He begins with the assignment, followed by his question, is it that simple? Then he starts talking through his question, listing reasons why he’s colored and why he has white in him too, leading him to question whether he can’t be both. Only through writing does he come to the conclusion that he learns from his instructor as his instructor learns from him (or the black and white communities, represented by the speaker and instructor respectively, learn from each other). For the speaker, as for myself, the act of writing helps him to identify what is true in his life. He gradually untangles a knot of experience, prejudice and sentiment, and the audience knows that he has come to a conclusion when he quits questioning and states facts beginning in line 29. “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!” (34-36) he says using the single exclamation point in the piece, reinforcing his confidence that he has in fact come to truth while completing his assignment.
Finally, the only question left is whether or not the instructor approves of the speaker’s conclusion. “I guess you learn from me” (38), the speaker says with hesitation. He has realized that there is no clear-cut line that can be drawn between races or between him and his instructor – each one learns from the other; however, the instructor is older or whiter and allowed more liberty than he. Will the instructor agree that this is truth? The three hyphens that break the flow of lines 38-40 further emphasize the speaker’s hesitancy to come to this conclusion. In addition, these hyphens that separate the three characteristics of the instructor (older, white, and somewhat more free) draw attention to these characteristics and give them weight. These are the key differences between the speaker and the instructor, and they could determine whether or not the instructor agrees with the speaker’s definition of truth. The last line, “This is my page for English B,” finalizes the poem. The speaker has come to his conclusion, and his mind has been untangled through the writing process; now it is up to the instructor to decide if the assignment has been fulfilled.
If I were the instructor, I would count this piece as a thoughtful and honest expression of the speaker’s self. Nothing in the work suggests pretense by way of tone or diction. The language is ordinary, if not distracted as evidenced by the heavy use of punctuation and short strains of thought being linked more by association than anything else. A poem or prose piece neatly arranged into stanzas or point by point paragraphs would have seemed more contrived and diluted the tone of honest inquiry.
An identity crisis prompted by an English assignment results in a new discovery. Through the act of writing, the speaker is able to sift through his conflicting strains of thought and push above social conventions to a higher truth about himself and about life. The discovery is that a person does not have to be completely white or black, but that cultures intertwine and build on each other through interaction. He is a part of his instructor as his instructor is apart of him. Some mutual experience and consistent interaction allow them to learn from one another. This is the expression that comes from the speaker; this is true.