Perspective on Race Theme for English B

The poem “Theme for English B” is based on an assignment the speaker receives from his college English class. He is told to write a page about whatever comes to his mind as long as it’s true. Hughes, however, portrays the writer’s dilemma and uncertainty about what to write and what is necessarily true. Ultimately, the author provides a wide of range of audiences, from the African American youth to college students today, with a glimpse of how he perceives life and his interpretation of the assignment. In the poem, Langston Hughes not only touches upon the African American struggle for equality but through imagery, style, language, tone and repetition, he also dramatizes the inner thoughts of the colored student. Although he is different physically, he possesses the same human characteristics as his classmates and the instructor. 

As the poem specifically focuses on the student, the readers expect him to be an intellectual individual because he is the only black student in his entire class. This reason alone also contributes to the student’s dilemma about the assignment. He is unsure about the instructor’s expectations and how he might react to the student’s response mainly due to their color differences. The student also possesses a courageous attitude because he is able to express his opinions about racial equality and describes his instructor and himself to be part of each other. Ultimately, this simple poem carries a stronger message of racial

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awareness and identity. By the end of the poem, the student is able to resolve his dilemma by concluding that even though they might not always like it, the instructor and the student are part of each other and “that’s true.”

In order to fully understand the poem one must understand where the author is coming from. Langston Hughes, an African American and one of the many writers who rose up during the Harlem Renaissance, wrote this poem to portray ignorance about race. Even though he wrote the poem many years after the movement in 1951 at the peak of discrimination, it provides accurate accounts of experiences heeded by the black population at the time. “Hughes [wrote] about Afro-America’s inability to actualise equality in the United States nearly a century after President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation” (Harlem World). One could sense that the poem could be an autobiography based on Hughes’ own personal experiences. This is apparent because the author did attend Columbia University but unlike the speaker in the poem he was not born in Winston-Salem. According to Anne Stevenson, the poem could be a reminiscence of Hughes’ earlier experiences and this is his way of reanalyzing some of the things he went through at a much younger age.

However, even after such invigorating attempts by the author to illuminate on black experiences, his poem was met with mixed reactions. Hughes work was criticized by black critics who protested that his work only focused on the “unattractive view of black life.” However, Hughes was praised by many critics as well. “Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of

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black America” (“ from the Academy of American Poets”). Thus, some were glad that he sided with the common folks and wrote about his personal experience in such a creative way. Hoyt W. Fuller claims that Hughes “chose to identify with plain black people-not because it required less effort and sophistication, but precisely because he saw more truth and profound significance in doing so.” This shows Hughes’ commitment to writing about African American experiences in an accurate way, instead of writing about obscure things like many of the poets did at the time.

The primary audience for the poem could be seen as the speaker’s instructor and classmates, for whom he first wrote the poem. The audience could also have been the African American population of Harlem, where Langston Hughes resided for much of his life. However, the secondary audiences (or addressees now) could be seen as the college students either analyzing the poem in their writing class, African American studies class, or those pursuing poetry in general. In any case, this poem could be seen as a historical piece educating future generations about our past.

The main focus of the poem is on the structure and the initial assignment that the student must focus on, which not only reveals his dilemma but Hughes uses this to highlight concepts of race. Unlike the rest of the poem, which appears to be in free verse, the instructions for the assignment are given in perfect and end rhyme. “The instructor said, Go home and write a page tonight. And let that page come out of you—Then, it will be true” (1-3). Even though most of us may find these instructions fairly clear, the writer, seems rather confused and conflicted about if the assignment is really this simple. He is

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not sure his reality is the same as his fellow classmates due to his race. He endures an identity crisis and continuously tries to convince himself he is not any different from his professor and classmates because of his skin color.

In the poem, the speaker reveals himself as a twenty-two-years-old colored student, and tries to answer the assignment by appealing to the audience. He lists things like “…I like to eat, sleep, drink and be in love. I like to work, read, learn, and understand life” (21-22). In doing so the student tries to express to the audience as well as his instructor that being African American doesn’t stop him from liking the same things as other races. However, this leads to his next dilemma because now the student begins to wonder “so will my page be colored that I write?” (26). The student wonders if his race might have an influence on his writing and whether his instructor will be able to understand him because he is white. The audiences can relate to the speaker, not only due to his young age, but also because he feels like an outsider, which many of us encounter time to time.

Hughes uses imagery to portray a typical day in the student’s life as he tries to make sense of his assignment. “The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas, Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y, the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator up to my room, sit down, and write this page” (11-15). Through these lines the author creates a visual of where the student lives, his normal routine of getting home from school, and the normalcy of his experience that makes him a typical person. However, his school seems to be “above” Harlem, perhaps outside the

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city and this may lead to his feelings of being out of place. Also this long route that the student must take back and forth suggests that he may be poor, yet, based on his intellect he can go to a university that most of his neighborhood will never get to experience. This pertains to Hughes’s overall message that this student is just another resident of mainly African American community in Harlem and his skin color does not differentiate him from society.

The poem consists of informal language written in jazz-poetry style, which “demonstrates jazz-like rhythm or feel of improvisation” (“PittsburgStateUniversity”). The poem consists of breaks in the middle of the lines and flows in a rhythmic pattern. “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: hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page” (16-19). The speaker tries to establish a connection between him and his surroundings. He constantly refers to Harlem and how he can “see and hear” it. This develops into a small back and forth dialogue. These lines make it obvious that the speaker has a deep connection with his community and he feels understood and comforted by it. This leads him to conclude that “[his paper] will not be white” (28). The writer is able to understand his roots and (at this part) is coming to terms with what he will write for the assignment.

Hughes uses repetition to establish a stronger emphasis on the point he is trying to make. In the next few lines, the student decides that whatever he writes “will not be white.” This is the crucial part of the essay because even though the student addresses the

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instructor and realizes the differences between the two, he still believes they are part of each other. “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” (29-35). By repeating words like “part of”, “you”, and “me” the author highlights his main message: we are all part of each other. The writer realizes even though he is an individual, he is still a human being and part of the same society as his instructor. This simple, yet, powerful message makes the reader realize that we are more alike than one might think.

The tone the author takes in the poem could be described as a bit ironic, and regretful. In the beginning, the speaker wonders if the assignment is really as simple as it seems but he ends the poem by simply stating that “This is my page for English B” (41). The speaker also is split between two aspects of his life. First of all, he is different than others in his class because he is black but he is also an American, which makes him the same as everyone else. “You are white–yet a part of me, as I am part of you. That’s American…That’s true” (31-33). Nevertheless, the poem ends with a sense of regret. Even though the student and the instructor are the same because they are both Americans, the instructor is still “more free” than him.

One of the important components of the poem is its style, and language. Even though the poem starts out with the end rhymes and perfect rhymes, it is mostly written in free verse with Jazz like rhythm. The language of the poem is simple and straightforward as well, which makes it easier to understand and relate to. Also one can learn a lot from

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the diction of the poem. The simplicity of the words prevents many different interpretations of the poem. Thus, different readers can agree on the themes of the poem and pretty much come to the same conclusion regarding its message. Walter Rhett writes, “[Langston] approached issues and problems, differences and deficiencies with the joy of common sense. His work never yelled or sliced the truth into half measures, but it was never bombastic, in-your-face prevaricating, and no matter how dark the situation, always had an embedded sense of humor.” In fact, this is exactly how most of the students and bloggers feel about Hughes’s poetry. Some (like Rhett) go as far as to say, although Hughes wrote about complex issues, he was always honest and rich in his writing.

In the poem “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes uses style, repetition, tone, language and imagery to effectively demonstrate African American struggle for equality. Hughes describes his personal account with race through the eyes of the colored student, who struggles to accomplish his assignment because he questions the similarities and dissimilarities between himself and his instructor. Hughes specifically targets African American audiences who can relate to the speaker of the poem and sympathize with him. Although students now days can understand the speaker’s dilemma, it’s looked at as a historical piece. Hughes is praised for his accurate portrayal of black life and use of particular diction and syntax to appeal to the audiences.

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Work Cited

Espey, Debbie. “Examining Theme for English B by Langston Hughes.” Associated Content. Associated Content, Inc., 13 March 2010. Web. 6 Nov 2010.

“Harlem, By Langston Hughes, 1951.” Harlem World. WordPress, 8 July 2008. Web. 16 Nov 2010.

“Jazz Poetry: 1920s-30s.” PittsburgStateUniversity. Pittsburg State University, 29 January 2007 . Web. 14 Nov 2010.

“Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967).” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation , 2010. Web. 6 Nov 2010.

“Langston Hughes Group.” enotes. Salon Media Group, INC, 5. September 2008. Web. 6 Nov 2010.

“Langston Hughes.” From the Academy of American Poets. Academy of American Poets, 1997-2010. Web. 13 October 2010.

Langston, Hughes. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print

Rhett, Walters. “”Theme for English B:” Remembering Langston Hughes.” Southern Perlo Stories/Insights/Open Views. Salon Media Group, INC, 25 August 2010. Web. 6 Nov 2010.

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Stevenson, Anne . “#60 Theme for English B (Langston Hughes).” Poetry Countdown . WordPress, 3 September2009. Web. 17 Nov 2010.

Writer’s Memo

The greatest strength in my essay would be the fact that it addresses many rhetorical devices and it focuses on the rhetorical analysis, instead of just summarizing the plot. My weaknesses mainly rely in the structure of the paragraphs. I had to struggle a lot with making effective transition from paragraph to paragraph.

I would like to think I worked thoroughly and equally hard on all aspects of my essay. However, like I mentioned above, organizing my paragraph was really time consuming and frustrating.

If I had extra time to fix my essay, I would probably try to reorganize my paragraphs and look for spelling/grammar errors. I would also try to check for plagiarism because I used many outside sources in my essay and sometimes I get carried away and either forget to cite or accidentally take others ideas as my own.

Actually I wasn’t sure if I had grasped the whole concept of analyzing works rhetorically before working on this essay. I learned a lot about rhetorical devices that make certain texts effective or ineffective. Overall, I think I finally understand the concept of “rhetoric.”

Just like everyone else, I would like to receive an A on this assignment, even though that may not be the case. I like to think I worked on this essay best to my ability and tried to incorporate the necessary details into it. However, I do realize that my essay does have some weak points and I’d like to at least receive a B.

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