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THEME FOR ENGLISH B by


Langston Hughes
LITERAL MEANING
The persona's lecturer gave him an assignment to write a page that reflects 'him', or his character.
The persona wonders if this is a simple task, and begins to think about his life. Things like his
age, place of birth, race and place of residence. Based on these musings, he surmises that he is
confused due to his youth. He guesses that he is what he feels, sees and hears, which is Harlem,
New York. He continues his musing about what he likes, and concludes that he likes the same
things that people of other races like. On this basis, he questions whether or not his page will be
influenced by race. He concludes that it will not be white. He admits that his instructor, as well
as the fact that this instructor is white, will have some influence on his page. He states that they
both influence each other, that is what being American is about. He believes that both of them
might not want to influence each other, but it cannot be helped. He concludes that both of them
will learn from each other, despite the fact that the instructor has the advantage of being older,
white and 'more free'. All of these musings and conclusions become his page for English B.

We start out with a writing assignment given by someone we can presume is our black speaker's
white English professor. The assignment is to just write a page, from the self. The assignment
also says that this will make the page "true."

What follows is our speaker's take on the assignment. He questions its simplicityis something
true simply because it comes out of one person's self? Is truth the same thing for a black youth
like him as it is for the white professor?

As he's debating what is true for Americans, black or white, we find out a little about our
speaker's life. He's a black college student in a class dominated by white students and he lives in
Harlem. Harlem, and New York City in general, are a big part of his life, and he feels that he is in
conversation with his environment. We also hear about how our speaker is just a normal 22-year-
old guy, who likes to do the things normal 22-year-olds do.

But throughout the poem, this page for his English B class, there's a sense of irony and sarcasm.
In an age of rampant discrimination, how can a page of writing be true and meaningful for both a
black student and a white professor? Is truth warped by racism? The speaker concludes be
acknowledging that that professor is "somewhat more free" than he is.
Line 1 The instructor said,

This line sets us up and gives us the context of the poem. There's an instructor, so we can
guess that we're in a classroom. Notice how this line is set apart from the poem? Since
the instructor gets this first, separate lineat the very top of the whole poemwe get the
sense that he's an authority figure, and we're going to listen up to what he's saying.
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Lines 2-3 Go home and write


a page tonight.

These lines are in italics, so after the set-up of line 1, we know that this is probably the
instructor speaking (italics in writing tend to indicate someone's speech or thoughts). He's
giving out his assignment. His students are supposed to write one page. (Terminology
note: Back in the day, such writing assignments were called "themes." So, "Theme for
English B" refers to this assignment, not the English "theme," the central message of a
literary work, that we typically think of today.

So, write about what?

Sounds simple enough to us, but it's also pretty vague. And it makes us think about how
different home could be for each of this instructor's students. Where do they live? Who
do they live with? What is their commute to class like?

Lines 4-5 And let that page come out of you


Then, it will be true.

Here, we get deeper into the assignment. This isn't just any page, but a page that's
supposed to come out of "you," or, the student. This means that whatever the page is, it's
supposed to reflect something deep about who the writer is. The topic seems to be wide
open, though. Whether it's their sentiments about scrambled eggs or the state of modern
society, if it comes from the inside, it's fair game for this assignment.

Line 5, then, goes a little further to say that, if the page comes out of the person writing it,
it will be "true." The professor is inviting the students to see the connection between their
writing, their selves, and some ultimate truth. Hmm. We wonder where that will take our
speaker.

Line 6 I wonder if it's that simple?

Here, our speaker enters the poem for the first time, and he does so debating the
assignment. Have you ever gotten an assignment from a teacher or a professor that seems
to oversimplify somethingmaybe, like the complicated concept of "truth"? If so, you
were up against the same dilemma our speaker is up against now. That's a biggie!

The speaker wonders if it can be so simple that whatever you write, if it comes from
inside, is true. Truth can be something as easy as "2 plus 2 equals 4," but more often it's
something complex, such as, "I love my father, but I hate that he is mean when he drinks
alcohol," or "I don't know whether or not I believe in God." Truth is generally hard to pin
down, and far from simple, and the speaker seems to recognize that.
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Line 7 I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.

Now we get into the biological meat of the story. These are the facts about our speaker
perhaps, even, the simple truths. Yet these facts, when we look closely, tell us a lot about
our speaker and his (we're assuming that it's a he) life.

We'll break it down: he's 22 years old. Today, that's the age when a lot of people graduate
from college. It's often referred to as the "quarter-life crisis." At 22, our speaker is no
longer a carefree youth, and he's a few years away from being a teenager. Maybe his
friends are getting married, having kids, getting jobs and promotions. It seems like he's
wondering what exactly his life is supposed to be, and what the years after 22 are going
to look like. We know, at least, that our speaker is still in school, so we're guessing his
education is going to play an important role in determining his future and his thoughts.

Then, our speaker says he's colored, or black. Being black back when this poem was
published, in 1951, meant dealing with a lot of racism. In this era, before the Civil Rights
Movement and Martin Luther King Jr., prejudice was rampant.

Last, we hear that the speaker was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, home to Wake
Forest University (go Demon Deacons!). So he's from the Southa stalwart hub of
prejudice. So even though the rest of this poem talks a lot about New York, we can think
of the speaker's knowledge of the South, and the discrimination he may have faced there.

Important note: This line is a big clue that our speaker is not Hughes, because Hughes
was born in Missouri. So Hughes is giving us the words of another personwhether it's a
real person that Hughes knew, or one that he made up, we can only guess. The main thing
to remember here is that, contrary to what a lot of people say about this poem, it is
definitely not part of Hughes' autobiography. This is why it's always, always important to
make the distinction between the speaker of the poem and the poet who actually wrote it.

Lines 8-9I went to school there, then Durham, then here


to this college on the hill above Harlem.

Here, we're getting a brief overview of the speaker's educational background.

It's easy to just assume that the college mentioned is Columbia University, where Hughes
studied. But, remember, this poem isn't in Hughes' voice. It's more likely that the school
mentioned is the City College of New York, which is in fact on a hill in Harlem.

These lines tell us something else important about our speakerhe takes his education
seriously, since he's stayed with it through multiple institutions.
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Line 10 I am the only colored student in my class.

The speaker is the only black person in his classwe're assuming that means his English
B class, not his entire class at the college, but it could be either way.

It also means that he's willing to pursue an education even though it places him in the
minority, which can be uncomfortable, especially back in 1951, when this poem was
published.

This line brings race into the forefront of the poem, and gets us about thinking about race
and identity, and how they relate to this idea of "truth."

Lines 11-15The 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:

These lines show us the speaker's journey from his class back to his living quarters.
Check out a map of Harlem to follow his journey.

The steps of his journey let us know for sure that he's talking about the City College of
New York (just west of St. Nicholas and the park), and give us a little bit of the city
flavor. His walk sounds like it's a good mix of park and street, and, like any walk of a few
blocks, it probably gives him time to clear his head and think about his class, his life, and
his world.

The "Y" that the speaker talks about is the Harlem YMCA. If you haven't been to a
YMCA, think of it as kind of a community center. The Harlem Y, which is still around,
serves as a hostel. Hostels are cheap places for people, particularly young people, to stay.

So that paints the image in our mind that our speaker probably doesn't have a ton of
money. He sleeps and works in one room, and probably shares a bathroom with a whole
bunch of people. Note that when we jump from line 14 to 15, we get a little bit
of enjambment, a literary device in which there's a line split right smack in the middle of
a thought. In this case, the line split helps break up the journey into small steps.

These lines take us with our narrator as he works his way back home from English B.
While he's walking, he's thinking, and we're thinking with him. It's impressive that the
first thing this 22-year-old does when he gets back to his room is sit down and write.
How many young people do you know who would work on their homework right away,
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rather than put it off? It makes us wonder what the sources of our speaker's motivation
could be. He clearly wants to get to work!

The details of this journey really help establish a setting

and literally, let us readers walk in the speaker's shoes.

Also notice the colon at the end of this line. Possibly, that means that the rest of the poem
is the assignmentthe page that's supposed to be trueand this part leading up to that
was just the set up.

Line 16 It's not easy to know what is true for you or me

What a statement we've got here: it's not, our speaker says, easy to know what's true. Do
you agree with this statement? It fits right in with the doubtful tone of the rest of the
poem, bringing us back to the original assignment, and the speaker's skepticism about its
simplicity.

Pay attention to the audience, here. The speaker uses the second person at the end of this
line, with the word "you." Immediately, this might make us think of ourselves, the
readers, but it's important to remember the context of this poem. The "you" here most
likely refers to the speaker's instructor, who will be reading this page for sure, or perhaps
even the speaker's classmates, who might listen in if he reads the assignment aloud.

Line 17 at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what

Here, we've got more enjambment. There's a split thought between line 16 and line 17,
and another split between line 17 and line 18, so it's important to pay attention to both
line breaks and punctuation.

Let's start with the thought from line 16. Added to the statement that it's difficult to know
what's true, now we've got to think of the influence of age on truth.

Perhaps, this hints, it's harder to know what's true when you're in your twenties. You have
a whole lot of your future to live out, but you've lost the certainty that sometimes comes
with youth and innocence. You're kind of just figuring out who you are. (Oddly, that is a
pretty mature thought to have for someone how is that youngdon't you think?.)

There's some repetition herewe already know that 22 is the speaker's own age, he told
us so in line 7. But the repetition makes this poem feel as if it really were just a page
written straight from the speaker's brain, with no rearrangement or artifice.
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The form of the poem suggests that same thing. We can say that it's grouped into four
main "sections," but it's not something that's evenly hammered out into well-
defined stanzas. For more on the form of the poem, check out "Form and Meter."

The second part of the line keeps up the conversational feel. "But I guess" isn't a phrase
you'd find in most poems. In this poem, which is supposed to show a page coming from a
student's heart, it fits right in. Still, we're left guessing exactly what the speaker is trying
to say he is until we get to the next line.

Line 18 I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:

Now we hear what the speaker guesses he is. He is what he senses. He names three
senses: feeling, seeing, and hearing. Feeling is a tricky one, because that can be taken
literally, to mean touch, and figuratively, to mean emotion. Seeing and hearing are more
straightforward.

He adds on to this list of three senses by saying that he feels Harlem. Note the structure
of this line, with the repetition of the word "hear." This makes the line seem much more
rhythmic and conversational, and turns the "I hear you" into an affirmation, not just an
observation.

Connecting this line with the rest of the poem, it seems the speaker is saying that what
comes out of him, and according to the instructor, what is him, is what he sees, feels, and
hears. Harlem, which fills up most of his senses at the moment, is thus a big part of who
he is, and a big part of this page he's writing. So, in a way, he's saying that Harlem is
"true."

Note that this line ends in a colon. We've seen that construction earlier in the page.
Colons are generally followed by a list, or a description.

Line 19hear you, hear mewe twoyou, me, talk on this page.

This line comes right after a colon. Though a colon is generally used in front of a list or a
description, here, it seems to be suggesting that this line is dialogue.

So here, we hear the speaker talking to Harlem. This line begs to be read aloudits
strength is in its rhythm. Though the "you" in this line is referring to Harlem, it gets
swept up in the back and forth cadence of the line, and brings us readers in. "We" and
"you" seems to include us, the audience, just as much as it refers to Harlem.
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Note that "we two" is separated by dashes. This is an interesting phrase. It brings the
speaker and Harlem together with the "we," but maintains the separation with the word
"two." Maybe the speaker and Harlem can join together, but they're still separate.

Line 20(I hear New York, too.) Mewho?

Here, the speaker's thoughts are jumping around a little, but still related. So in addition to
Harlem, he hears New York as a wholethe city, or perhaps, even the whole state! This
is snuck into the line inside parentheses, which means that maybe, the speaker thought it
was a little off topic. In our opinion, though, it fits in just fine.

Harlem, and our speaker, are part of this big, bustling city. At the same, time, though (and
just like in the phrasing "we two"), New York is mentioned separately. Though Harlem
is in New York, it's still treated as a place that's not the same as New York. Separation
remains.

After this little parenthetical, we've got the speaker questioning who he is. He seems to be
going back over line 19, and examining this tiny little pronoun "me."

He doesn't feel quite comfortable talking about his relationship with Harlem and New
York without knowing who he, himself, is.

The structure of this line keeps up the conversational feel. The poem, with all its dashes,
parentheses, and question marks, really does seem like it was written to fit the assignment
in lines 2-5.

Line 21Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.

This line is the beginning of the answer to the question in line 20. At a very simple level,
the speaker is answering the question of who he is with what he likes.

Unsurprisingly, he likes to do simple things, which a lot of people like to do. Do you
know anyone who doesn't like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love? Yet, at the same time,
the inclusion of being in lovenote that it's placed last in the line, in a place of
prominence as the last thing we readmakes this line more than just a statement of some
basic things people like to do. It make the speaker very human, and makes us wonder
who the speaker might be in love with.

Line 22I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.


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This line continues the list of the things the speaker likes. He likes things that you would
expect a student like him to enjoyreading, learning, and working. It sounds like this is
the kind of person who would be pretty easily satisfied with life.

These things might not be enjoyed by everyone, though, because not everyone likes to
work, read and learn. And sure, we'd all like to understand life, but there are people out
there who are satisfied with a basic explanation of things, or who don't mind not thinking
too much about bigger things than everyday life.

So this line lets us know that our speaker is a thinker. He likes to be intellectually
stimulated, and wouldn't like to just live with no questions asked. And he probably
genuinely enjoys his studies, which is, perhaps, why he persists in his studies even
though he is the sole black person in a class of white people.

Lines 23-24I like a pipe for a Christmas present,


or recordsBessie, bop, or Bach.

Now we get down to specifics. The speaker is painting us a picture of his personality.
He's telling us what he likes to get at Christmassomething simple, like a pipe, or some
records.

A pipe might seem kind of weird to a modern reader, but back when this poem was
published, that would have been a perfectly normal gift, and smoking a pipe a fairly
normal habit.

The records are kind of funny, because the ones he names that he might like to receive
vary widely. Bessie Smith was a famous blues singer, bop was a popular kind of jazz, and
Bach was a classical composer. So this line goes from modern to ancient pretty quickly,
letting us know that our speaker is well-educated musically, or he at least has a broad
appreciation for music. Also note the use of alliteration in line 24all three of these
musicians' names start with the letter b. The line is fun to read aloud, bouncing along in
its musical way. (For more on the sound of the poem, check out the "Sound Check"
section.)

We also get the detail that our speaker is Christian here, or at least, he grew up in a
Christian family that celebrated Christmas. And we know that his family probably has
enough money to buy some simple presents, but probably not a whole lot of money,
because the presents aren't sports cars or new yachts or anything like that.

Lines 25-26I guess being colored doesn't make me not like


the same things other folks like who are other races.
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Here, we move from specifics to general. The speaker goes back to talking about being
colored, or black. Remember from line 10 that he's the only black person in his whole
class.

In these lines, he's thinking, hey, black people and white people like the same sorts of
simple things. So do people of any race and color. Liking the same thing is a symbol of
common humanity. It may seem weird now, but common humanity wasn't so easily
established in Hughes' lifetime, when prejudice ran rampant and blacks were looked
down on by many as different, other than themselves.

Line 27S o will my page be colored that I write?

Now the speaker jumps off from his realization that he is connected to people of all races
simply through liking things everyone likes, such as eating and sleeping.

So he's wondering if the page that he writes for his assignment will be colored. Normally,
colored in this poem can be switched out with the word black, or African-American.
Here, we're not so sure. First, there's the difference between a blank, white page, and a
page that perhaps has several colors of ink. Then there's the difference between a page
that was written by a white person, and a page that was written by a black, or "colored,"
person. The word "colored" is integral to the wordplay here.

Yet, the speaker isn't sure if his page will be different. He's wondering about the
difference between art and literature produced by black and white people, he's wondering
about the differences in the lives of black and white people. And if we remember that he's
supposed to be writing this page to get closer to an inner truth, we also realize that he's
wondering if there are differences in the truth for black and white people. If so, how
might that difference affect, or "color," the way black and white people see the world and
express their viewssay, in an English paper.

THEME OF IDENTITY
A Free Verse, Stream of Consciousness Conversation. There is no set form and meter in this
poem, but there's definitely a science to the way it's structuredeven if that science is to make
the poem seem as if it has no structure.

Let's back up: The poem is supposed to be fulfilling an assignment for a college English class.
But it includes the assignment in the poem, so right away we know this is no average
assignment, and no lazy college student. This poem is set up to be more.

Yet throughout the poem, we get hints that the poem is written in a stream of consciousness
style. "Stream of consciousness" means writing down the first thing that comes to mind, and just
rolling with it. Things like asking questions (line 6) and describing the journey home from class
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in detail (11-14), support this style. It's casual, and seems as if it's flowing straight from the
speaker's head.

Whether or not the poem was actually written in stream of consciousness, or just made to seem
that way, the casual style instantly allows the reader to connect with the speaker. This isn't a
hoity-toity poem with lots of difficult metaphors and parts that are hard to get through. It's more
like we're given a glimpse into the speaker's mind.

We get so far inside his mind, in fact, that sometimes we nearly get lost. Take, for example:

I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:


hear you, hear me--we two--you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Mewho? (18-20)

Who did what with the when now? These lines are kind of confusing to read, but that's because
they're supposed to be. In a poem that grapples with identitywhat it means to be black, white,
or humanthe speaker uses form to communicate the confusion that can result from such a line
of questioning. This is not a speaker who has everything figured out. He's someone who is
searching for answers. The stream of consciousness of lines like these helps to get that idea
across.

As a result, they also make our speaker more relatable. As he attempts to make a connection
across the page with his instructor, he makes a connection with the reader. Lucky for us, that's
pretty appropriate for this poem, which is all about engagement and all not about separation
like the kind of distance you might feel when trudging through a super-tough, complex poem.
Nope. This speaker wants us to know that, "As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me"
(37-38). For that to happen, there must be a personal connection at work, which is made through
the poem's conversational, open form.

How does the form accomplish this? Well, it's mainly with word choice. Take, for example, the
phrase: "I guess." This isn't a long poem, but we see that phrase three times: in lines 17, 21, and
38. What's up with that? Was Hughes really just guessing? Likely not. Instead, this phrase is like
a verbal tic (like, "you know?" or "anyways") that gets repeated in spoken conversation. So,
reading this poem is a lot like being in a personal conversation.

That's not to say that poetic form just gets chucked out the window, though. Oh, no. Like any
good conversation, this poem keeps us at the edge of our seat, waiting to hear what comes next.
One way it does that is through enjambment. By ending lines mid-sentence, the reader is brought
along with some inertia into the next line. For example, take those same lines:

As I learn from you,


I guess you learn from me (37-38)

After line 37, we're left hanging. "As I learn from you" What? Tell us! Ah, the suspense is
killing! So, we head to line 38 with a question in the back of our mind, much like the speaker has
burning questionsabout race and societyin the back of his mind, and in the lines of this
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poem!

THEME OF RACE
In "Theme for English B," wrapped up in the speaker's search for his identity is the idea of his
race. He's black, born in the South, but now lives in Harlemthe center of black culture in New
York City and the home of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He's the only black person in
his class, and that includes his instructor. Talk about intimidating! When he sits down to write a
page that's supposed to be true, he can't help but feel that, when people aren't equally free, then
they're not going to have the same truth. Finally, he seems to realize that a person's "truth" really
can't be separated from a person's race. And for him, Shmoopers, that's the truth.

THEME OF VISIONS OF AMERICA


Even before we get on down to line 33 in "Theme for English B," where America is specifically
mentioned, we know that this is a poem that deals with what it means to be American. Our
speaker lives in the North now (Harlem), but was raised in the South. He's living as a young
adult in a time when what it meant to be black and American was about to change. The Civil
Rights movement was about to jump off, but equality was a long way off. Still, our speaker
realizes that, as segregated as the two races are, it's American to be wrapped up in the identity of
someone you don't necessarily get along with. Even in a melting pot, some ingredients just don't
match all that well. Yet, there they sit, stewing together in the grand recipe that is America stew.
Yummy!

THEME OF TRUTH
At the very beginning of "Theme for English B," we hear that our speaker's assignment is
supposed to result in some sort of truth. Writing a page from his heart will result in a page that,
his instructor posits, will be "true." Nifty, huh? Well, our speaker doesn't know if he agrees with
that, and thinks that truth is a lot more complicated than something you can just sit down and
churn out. However, as he thinks things through in the poem, we'd wager to say that he definitely
hits on some fundamental truths: about race, about America, about identity. What comes out of
him, then, seems to be exactly what the instructor asks for in the assignment. True that.

Black and White Imagery Symbol Analysis


This poem is written by the only black student in a class with a white instructor. Throughout the
poem, the difference between being colored and white is discussedwhether it's race, or a piece
of paper. There are some clever puns waiting to be found in this poem, but the discussion of
black and white here is far more than clever. It's revealing, and moving.

Line 7: Here we get the basic picture of the speaker as black, or, as he says here,
"colored." The word "colored" may seem to be just a simple word describing the race of
the speaker, but placed in context, it's far more than that. When this poem was published
in 1951, "colored" was a much more prominent way of describing someone who was
black or African American. It was also the word that went on top of signs denoting
separate bathrooms or facilities for white people and black people. Now, the word is
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almost taboo, and certainly would make anyone who used it seem at the least old-
fashioned, and probably racist.

Line 10: Here, we see the word "colored" instead of black or African American again.
This line gives us a vivid imageone black person in a class full of white people. This
makes us think that the speaker must feel a little isolated, a little out of his element, a
little alone.

Lines 25-26: Here, we get a little direct questioning about the theme of race in the poem.
We knew that he was feeling a little isolated, and now, he's connecting himself with other
people, saying that he likes the same things people in other races like. Regardless of race,
he's making a case for shared humanity.

Line 27: Now we get a little wordplay. The speaker asks if the page that he writes will be
colored. He's asking if the page he writes is going to be different because it's written by a
black person. But he's also playing on the idea that a page of paper is white, and that
when there's ink on it, it will no longer be white.

Line 28: The black and white wordplay continues. The word white has two meanings
here. The page will not be like it was written by a white person. But it also won't be white
because it will be written on.

Lines 31-32: Here, the speaker states plainly that his instructor is white, just like he stated
plainly earlier that he was colored. This gives us plain and simple imagery. It's in line 32
that things start to blend together, literally. Even though the speaker and his instructor are
completely different colors, they're a part of each other. So black and white begin to mix.

Lines 39-40: Here, we see that white and colored are more than just colors. Being older
and white makes the instructor more free. Skin color, in this poem, has become a symbol
of status and of freedomreflective of the age that the poem was written in, and possibly
still reflective of the world today.

Place Imagery Symbol Analysis


Throughout the poem, specific locations are mentioned. We get the sense that geographic
locations are a huge part of the speaker's identity. Geography, indeed, plays a big role in race,
especially back when this poem was published, in 1951. Following about a century after the
Civil War, the southern United States was the hub of racism, while the north was considered
more progressive. But as we can see from this poem, the races were in conflict everywhere. This
poem also uses places to enrich its specificity and detail. We feel like we are a part of the speaker
when we hear about the places where he lives his life.

Line 2: An important place is mentioned here: "home." This is part of the instructor's
assignment, but it also makes readers think about what home for our speaker might be
and what home is for them.
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Line 7: Winston-Salem is a city in North Carolina. It would definitely be considered the


South. This gives us an idea of the speaker's roots, and some of the racism that he may
have encountered growing up black in the South.

Line 8: Durham is another city about an hour away from Winston-Salem. Our speaker has
gone to school all over the southern United States.

Line 9: This geographical detail leads us to think of City College, in Harlempart of


New York City. Harlem is a rich place for thinking about racein the '20s the Harlem
Renaissance made Harlem a hull of new thinking. Art and music helped Harlem advance
away from racism.

Lines 11-15: These lines give us a rich little walk through Harlem. If we were wondering
where home was for the speaker earlier, this whole section has been through thathome
was once Winston-Salem, then Durham, and now it's a tiny room in the Y in Harlem.
That's where he's gone to write this page, at least.

Lines 18-20: These lines give Harlem and New York life. Where before they may have
been just geographical places, now we're starting to see that they're really an important
part of our speaker. His daily interactions with the sights and sounds of New York City
affect him.

Line 33: America is the general stage for this entire poem. The tension and mixing
between races that goes on, in both the South and the North, takes place in one bigger
setting: the United States. This poem was written in a time after Civil War tore America
apart, but before the Civil Rights Movement made ground in full integration of black and
white Americans. If it were set in any other country, this poem would carry a very
different meaning.

Learning Imagery Symbol Analysis


It's no surprise that there's a lot of talk about learning in this poemafter all, the poem is
supposed to be an assignment for an English class. But learning, in this poem, is about so much
more than school. It's about figuring out your identity, and growing as you interact with other
people. Yet a lot of this discovery is placed in the language of classroom learning.

Title: The title of this poem sets the stage for its educational tone. English B is about as
average a name for a college class as can be. Turns out, though, this poem isn't your
average assignment.

Lines 1-5: From the start, we get that the poem is an assignment. The exact language of
the assignment is even included. Even if we don't agree with the possibility of doing what
the assignment says, though, we have to at least admire this English instructor a little.
He's taking a risk by giving an assignment that's different from your average five-
paragraph essay.
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Lines 8-9: These lines tell us where the speaker went to school. He's young, we know, so
we can see that school has been an important part of his life so far.

Lines 14-15: These lines show us the speaker as he starts his assignment. It's somewhat
impressive that he's launching into it right away, and not procrastinating. Maybe, for all
his doubts, he's intrigued by this assignment.

Line 27: Even though our speaker's thoughts have strayed for almost this full section, he's
returned to thinking about his assignment in this line. This line has a little wordplay
between the white page that his assignment is to fill, and the white race.

Lines 29-30: These lines say that the speaker's assignment will be a part of his instructor.
This speaks to the relationship between the student and the instructor, and their potential
to affect each other.

Lines 37-38: Here, we get some wordplay with the idea of learning. We know that the
speaker is in a class, formally learning from the instructor. Yet he claims that the
instructor is learning from him, too. They're learning from each other as student and
teacher, yes, but also as black and white, as young and oldeach a representative of their
race and culture.

Line 41: As if to dot his I's and cross his T's, the speaker ends the poem by referring back
to the original assignment. This line rings with a little bit of sarcasmwe know that this
page may be just an assignment, but it also grabs at some universal truths that seem a
little out of place in a simple assignment for English class.

Theme for English B: Rhyme, Form & Meter

Well show you the poems blueprints, and well listen for the music behind the words.
A Free Verse, Stream of Consciousness Convo. There is no set form and meter in this poem, but
there's definitely a science to the way it's structuredeven if that science is to make the poem
seem as if it has no structure.

Let's back up: The poem is supposed to be fulfilling an assignment for a college English class.
But it includes the assignment in the poem, so right away we know this is no average
assignment, and no lazy college student. This poem is set up to be more.

Yet throughout the poem, we get hints that the poem is written in a stream of consciousness
style. "Stream of consciousness" means writing down the first thing that comes to mind, and just
rolling with it. Things like asking questions (line 6) and describing the journey home from class
in detail (11-14), support this style. It's casual, and seems as if it's flowing straight from the
speaker's head.

Whether or not the poem was actually written in stream of consciousness, or just made to seem
P a g e | 15

that way, the casual style instantly allows the reader to connect with the speaker. This isn't a
hoity-toity poem with lots of difficult metaphors and parts that are hard to get through. It's more
like we're given a glimpse into the speaker's mind.

We get so far inside his mind, in fact, that sometimes we nearly get lost. Take, for example:

I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:


hear you, hear me--we two--you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Mewho? (18-20)

Who did what with the when now? These lines are kind of confusing to read, but that's because
they're supposed to be. In a poem that grapples with identitywhat it means to be black, white,
or humanthe speaker uses form to communicate the confusion that can result from such a line
of questioning. This is not a speaker who has everything figured out. He's someone who is
searching for answers. The stream of consciousness of lines like these helps to get that idea
across.

As a result, they also make our speaker more relatable. As he attempts to make a connection
across the page with his instructor, he makes a connection with the reader. Lucky for us, that's
pretty appropriate for this poem, which is all about engagement and all not about separation
like the kind of distance you might feel when trudging through a super-tough, complex poem.
Nope. This speaker wants us to know that, "As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me"
(37-38). For that to happen, there must be a personal connection at work, which is made through
the poem's conversational, open form.

How does the form accomplish this? Well, it's mainly with word choice. Take, for example, the
phrase: "I guess." This isn't a long poem, but we see that phrase three times: in lines 17, 21, and
38. What's up with that? Was Hughes really just guessing? Likely not. Instead, this phrase is like
a verbal tic (like, "you know?" or "anyways") that gets repeated in spoken conversation. So,
reading this poem is a lot like being in a personal convo.

That's not to say that poetic form just gets chucked out the window, though. Oh, no. Like any
good conversation, this poem keeps us at the edge of our seat, waiting to hear what comes next.
One way it does that is through enjambment. By ending lines mid-sentence, the reader is brought
along with some inertia into the next line. For example, take those same lines:

As I learn from you,


I guess you learn from me (37-38)

After line 37, we're left hanging. "As I learn from you" What? Tell us! Ah, the suspense is
killing! So, we head to line 38 with a question in the back of our mind, much like the speaker has
burning questionsabout race and societyin the back of his mind, and in the lines of this
poem!

Speaker Point of View Who is the speaker, can she or he read minds, and, more importantly, can
P a g e | 16

we trust her or him?


If you didn't know too much about Langston Hughes, it would be tempting to think that the
speaker of the poem is Hughes himselfhe's either the one in this college class, or he's
remembering back to his college days.

But don't get caught up in that interpretation, because upon examination of Hughes' life, it
becomes pretty clear that he and his speaker are not one and the same, though they may have
some shared beliefs. First of all, Hughes was not born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, like
our speaker. He was born in Joplin, Missouri. Instead of heading to Durham, he then headed to
Ohio, and Illinois. Hughes went to college in Harlembut the college in the poem, if you look at
a map of Harlem can easily be identified as City College, while Hughes studied in Columbia.

Hughes, though he is not the speaker, may remember someone like the speaker from his college
years, and may have even had a conversation that is a lot like this poem. But it's not really our
job as readers to try to identify what real life person may be the speaker of the poem. Our job is
to look at the poem first, and imagine what the speaker is like from what's there on that page.

Lucky for us, the speaker of this poem makes it pretty easy for us to imagine what he's like. He
was born and raised in relatively quiet towns in the South, but now lives in the middle of a big
city, studying at college. He is living at the YMCA, so he probably doesn't have much money to
speak of. He likes the normal things any 22-year-old would enjoy, and we're guessing that if we
ran into this guy at a bar, we'd probably end up talking about music and pipes and which girls or
guys were the best looking.

But, at the same time that our speaker is just an average 22-year-old, he's more. For one, he's
black in an age that was riddled with racism. Yet he's open-minded and brave enough to confront
that reality, even while surrounded by white students and being taught by a white instructor.
Think about it: it would be very easy to write a page about anything other than race. It's not a
topic he has to confront. Still, even though it may make him (and his readers) uncomfortable, he
recognizes the importance of tackling this issue head-on. He's serious about discovering who he
is, as a young black man, and where he fits into a world dominated by white people.

So, in one respect, our speaker is a pretty typical college student: he's grappling with homework,
love, and all the normal things that a young person grapples with. But at the same time, he's also
challenging a world in which some people are freer than others. In that way, he's an example to
any regular student out there. You don't have to be in a position of power to ask an important
question, or take on a challenging issue. You just have to have the courage of your convictions.

Theme for English B Setting Where It All Goes Down


Though this poem is specifically set in Harlem, which is part of New York City, it doesn't stay in
Harlem. Instead, the setting expands to include several places, reminding us that the issues
confronted by this poem are ones that affect all of America, and perhaps, the world.

Of course, we start out in a familiar settinga classroom. Our speaker is taking an assignment
from his instructor. Right away, the setting lets us know a few things: education is a focus here,
P a g e | 17

and so is power. The speaker is a student, and so he is motivated to learn (or, at least, he should
be!). At the same time, he's got instructions to follow. The instructor is the one in charge, and the
speaker must oblige him by fulfilling the task that's been set forth for him.

In following those instructions, the speaker takes us on a quick trip down to the South, where he
was raised in North Carolina, land of the pines and, as a part of the South, the assumed home to
way more racism than there is in Harlem. This setting flashback, then, reminds us that issues of
race would have been prevalent in the speaker's life from the very beginning.

After we've moved on back to the present, the setting shifts back, too. We get a little scenic walk
through Harlem away from what we can figure out to be City College. The speaker is now
putting himself (and us along with him) directly into the hustle and bustle of a major metropolis,
a hubbub of humanity thatfor all of the peoplestill had some strict divisions to it (at the time
the poem was written, Harlem was considered the province of black and Hispanic New Yorkers,
and to a degree still is today). So, the setting switch tells us that some things have changed for
our speaker from the South, but that some things have remained the same.

Finally, our speaker reaches a more specific setting: his room at the YMCA. We're guessing that
this room in the Y is nothing fancy, so again the setting is revealing something to us: the
speaker's economic situation. Really, just by following him around from one setting to the next
from the South, to Harlem, to his room at the Ywe learn a great deal about the speaker's life. In
short, he's on the margins of a racist societyon the outside looking in, even while he sits in a
college classroom.

And so, the setting in this poem is a vivid backdrop to the drama going on in our speaker's mind.
Wrapped up in his quest to find out who he is as a 22-year-old black man, is another quest, a
quest that involves the setting. What exactly is Harlem? What's New York? What's America? And
how do I, the speaker asks, and all these people, so different from me, fit into this big country
together?

Sound Check Read this poem aloud. What do you hear?


Hearing this poem out loud is like overhearing one end of a conversation. It's not really a
prepared speech or anything quite so formal. Nope, it's more of a sneak peak into someone
else's stream of consciousness. "Stream of consciousness" means an uninterrupted flow of
thoughts, which is how the speaker attacks this assignment. His thoughts seem to flow randomly
out onto the page, creating an informal, conversational tone both in terms of the poem's content,
but also in terms of its sound.

As we discuss in "Form and Meter," there are many points along the way that the poem's content
points to its informal, conversational nature (like the repeated use of the phrase "I guess"). But
how does the sound of the poem accomplish this same impression? Take lines 19-20, for
example, when the speaker is addressing Harlem:

hear you, hear mewe twoyou, me, talk on this page.


(I hear New York, too.) Mewho?
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By the end, it's like, okay, we get it! Things are a bit confused. But the sound of the line also
helps get that point across. For one, the meter of the line is funky, a series of short, syllabic
bursts. Sonically, this line stumbles. There's no flow to it at all. And that is pretty much the point.
As the speaker contemplates that complex intersection of his self, his environment (Harlem and
great New York City), and his writing, his stream of consciousness hits a rough patch.

Still, there is some connection at work, though, and the sound of these lines reminds us of that.
The rhyme here is inconsistent (which is in keeping with the speaker's confusion), but it is
present in the words "you," "two," "too," and "who." We also get the repetition of "me" in these
lines, which adds another rhyme. Amid the stumbling rhythm, there is some symmetry to be
found here. So, the use of sound in this moment in the poem mirrors the speaker's confusion, but
also suggests a strong thread of connection running through him and his environment.

The sound of this poem also mirrors the speaker's thoughts with the fun alliteration of "Bessie,
bop, or Bach," in line 24. We mean, who wouldn't be happy when discussing their favorite
records? The speaker's enjoyment comes out in the very sound of the poem, with a bevy of
bouncing B sounds to bedazzle us.

So, there is a lot in this poem that gives us insight into the way this speaker is approaching his
assignment, and what that approach might say about his experience and personality. We're
getting his mind at work on the page, and the sound of the words turned up by that stream of
consciousness plays a complementary role in communicating that same idea.

Whats Up With the Title?


The title of this poem is misleadingly simple. It makes the poem seem like just an assignment for
a class, English Bwhich could be a class in any college. Put yourself back in your high school
or college English class (maybe that's what you're reading this poem for in the first place!).
Come on. Just try it. We know it's tough, but imagine the sleepy discussions about poetry and
novels. Imagine that kooky English professor coming up with some crazy assignment, and the
whole class rolling their eyes. Imagine lengthy discussions about different themes.

Now that we've got a picture in our heads about what setting the title reminds us of, we can break
it down a little bit. The "theme" in the title of this poem isn't really a theme like your English
professor would ask you to draw out of a book, or like we'll discuss later in the "Themes"
section. Of course, the poem talks about themes like truth and freedom and race, and the word
"theme" in the title could refer to the overall feeling and pattern of thoughts that the class touches
on.

But it could also be relating the poem to the musical concept of a theme. In music, a theme is a
complete, recognizable melody that a whole song could be based on, and which is often repeated
throughout the song. Plenty of jazz songs have the word theme in their titles. As we know from
his mention of Bessie Smith and Bach in line 24, the speaker of this poem likes music.

So, perhaps, the speaker is relating his page to themes in literature, and themes in music. After
P a g e | 19

all, the two are similar. Like a repeating melody in music, a theme in literature can tie together a
whole novel or poem. English classes, and people's lives, can work the same waythemes can
tie them together and define them.

And in the end, the theme of this theme is one of personal awareness, social connection, and a
reflection upon the role of race in America. This isn't just any old assignment, folks. It's an
opportunity for the speaker to reflect and, importantly, invite his instructor (and us with him or
her) along for the ride. Rather than busywork that's done for a grade, the broader, social themes
at work make this a meaningful exercise for everyone involved: the speaker, the instructor, and,
best of all, us!

Langston Hughess Calling Card What is the poets signature style?


Race and IdentityHughes writes a lot about how race can affect identity. In this poem, the young
speaker is wondering how being the only colored person in the class might affect the truth that's
supposed to come out of a page he writes for an assignment. That gives Hughes a way to directly
ask the questions about race that might come to a young person's headdoes being black make
you like different things than white people like? Does being black make you unable to learn from
someone who is white? What is being American when you are black, and is it different from
being American when you are white?

These questions are explored directly in this specific poem, but they're present in a lot of Hughes'
work. Yet that doesn't mean that his poetry is only interesting because of its comments on race.
Everyone, no matter what color they are, has to shape an identity for themselves. This is a
struggle that Hughes explores here in detail, but also elsewhere in much of his poetry.

LITERARY DEVICES

1.RHETORICAL QUESTION

Stanza 2, line 6: The persona ponders the ease of what he is asked to do. This question, in
turn, actually highlights the difficult nature of the task.

Stanza 3, line24: This question highlights the persona's confusion as to who he is, or his
character. He is unsure.

Stanza 4, line 32: The persona is wondering whether his race will affect what he writes
on the page. This is despite the fact that he concludes that race does not hinder people, in
general, liking the same things.

2. REPETITION
This repetition emphasizes the profound impact that Harlem, New York, has had on the
personality of the persona.
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IMPORTANT WORDS/ PHRASES


3.'here to this college on the hill above Harlem.'
The fact that the college is on a hill, above Harlem, is very important. It highlights the fact that
the college is a superior entity. The people of Harlem look up at it, showing their inferiority.
4.'I am the only colored student in the class.'
This line emphasizes the persona's 'otherness' in relation to every-one else in the class. He is
different. The isolation of the sentence (enclosed by full stops/periods) also emphasizes the
persona's 'otherness'.
5.'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'
This line highlights the fact that the college is a great distance from his home. This distance is
also metaphorical because it is implied that the experiences that he has at the college are also a
great distance from the experiences that he has in Harlem. They are two different worlds.
6.'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.'
This statement reveals the fact that America is viewed as a melting pot by the persona. He
believes that different races and cultures influence each other, thereby forming the term
'American'
7.As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me - although you're older - and white - and
somewhat more free.
This statement, by the persona, repeats his belief that the American society is a melting pot. It
also, however, states that not every-one is equal within this society.

* It is interesting to note that the persona's 'page for English B' becomes a journey of self
discovery that actually does not end. He forms no conclusion as to who he is because his
personality is still 'in process'

MOOD/ ATMOSPHERE
The mood of the poem is reflective.

TONE
The tone of the poem is also reflective.

THEMATIC CATEGORIZATION
Racism, places