Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” is an interesting piece of perspective from an author who is obviously struggling to come up with an answer to what a teacher had thought to be a fairly straight forward question. When Hughes’ instructor asks him to go home and simply put down truth on a single page, it opens his eyes up to all of the things that he has done in his life.
In addition to that, it opens his eyes to who he really is, what things drive and motivate him, and how other people have helped to shape him. He touches on certain racially charged issues, though he never really gets into them in detail. For the most part, his writing is a compilation of that several aspects that have made up his life and turned him into the relatively young man that he is.
Hughes begins his writing by simply wondering out loud to himself. His first words serve as something of a critique of the assignment itself. The teacher has indicated that this would be something that should not take long and it should be relatively simple for the students to complete. Hughes realizes right away that it is not that easy, at all, to come up with a real picture of the things that make a person who they are. At the beginning, the majority of Hughes’ doubts have to do with the fact that he was brought up in some different places and that he has always been something of an outlier when compared to his contemporaries. Hughes writes, “I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem. I went to school there, then Durham, then here to this college on the hill above Harlem. I am the only colored student in my class.” (Hughes). In this, the reader gets a clear picture of the road that has led Hughes to the university and how those things have had a seemingly profound impact on his life.
Hughes also takes the time to touch on some racially charged themes in his life in the later part of his opening dialogue. He does not look like a lot of the students around him, which obviously presents some problems for him and it also makes him appreciate his background. He learns to appreciate the reasons why he was able to come as far as he has come. Jane Alice of American Studies had some interesting thoughts on the main themes behind this particularly piece of poetry.
In her analysis, she writes, “The instructor of his class is then implying that everyone here in his college class has something in common or has some what of the same life” (Alice). This serves to address the big problem of perception that can often time separate people in academia. For the teacher, everything was simple and everyone in the class had a similar upbringing.
After all, they were there in a good college, so they had to come from the same type of background. Little does she know that it was much more of a struggle for some people than it was for other people. For the poet, getting to college was no simple task. Instead, it was something that required the ability to overcome many hurdles along the way.
Hughes is an interesting case when it comes to his perspective. He is no small player in the African American community, having ascended to the position of poet laureate and having produced some of the most well recognized work of his time. It is absolutely essential to understand these things if one is going to understand what he is trying to say in “Theme for English B”.
According to Mark Maier of AssociatedContent.com, this is the primary piece that readers have to grasp. Maier writes, “Hughes was a staple in the Harlem community, and a major player in the Harlem Renaissance—a coming-of-age for African American creativity in the throughout the 1920’s and ‘30’s. He is 47 by the time he writes this poem (not actually for the assignment’s due date) and it serves as both an educational and reflective vehicle—a voice that tells the how and why of not only what was happening during the time of his class but what was happening during the time he penned the piece” (Maier). This was a reflective piece, one that Maier had to think long and hard about before he put it down onto paper.
Not everything is racially charged in the poem, though. Hughes spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to be an American and life in America is life. He comes to the conclusion that being American is all about having different people as a part of your life, regardless of their background and their upbringing. Hughes writes in the poem, “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” (Hughes).
This is something that Chris Semansky speaks to, as well. There, he writes, “As ‘Theme for English B’ indicates, Hughes, from the beginning of his career, consistently explored the idea of an American voice, and he repeatedly insisted that what we define as “American” must include the experiences, language, and visions of both its black and white citizens” (Semansky).
All in all, many themes are addressed in Langston Hughes’ poem. From the obvious racial issues to the idea of an educational gap, he uses the idea of a simple assignment to address some things that are very important to him. Tina Mazzula speaks to this on more than one occasion in her analysis of the poem. She writes, “Langston Hughes, in writing “Theme for English B,” creates a poem that addresses the “white” concern for traditional English syntax, while at the same time, acknowledges the distance between the “white” culture and his “colored” self” (Mazzula).
One cannot truly understand what Hughes was trying to get across without addressing each of these things individually and as a whole. Though some have tried to suggest that one thing was more important than another to the poet, it is clear from his many writings that he took many different aspects of the educational process very seriously. Not only did he appreciate and understand the struggle that he and many other African American students had to go through, but he also understood how difficult it was for his white teacher to relate to him on that level. In a way, it was this understanding that helped Hughes become as successful as he was during the entirety of his career.
Alice, Jane. Critics and Builders: American Studies. Analysis: A Theme for English B. <http://criticsandbuilders.typepad.com/amstudiesblog/2008/03/anaylsis-a-them.html>
Hughes, Langston. Theme for English B. <http://www.eecs.harvard.edu/~keith/poems/English_B.html>
Maier, Mark. Deconstructing Langston B. Hughes’ Theme for English B. 21 October 2005. <http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/11600/deconstructing_langston_b_hughes.html>
Mazzulla, Tina. ‘It will be true’: A Look into the Voice of Langston Hughes. < http://titan.iwu.edu/~wchapman/americanpoetryweb/hughthem.html>
Semansky, Chris. Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999. <http://www.answers.com/topic/theme-for-english-b-poem-6>