Theme for English B
Theme for English B
Langston Hughes 1951
“Theme for English B” appeared in print relatively late in Langston Hughes’s career, and it both reenacts and complicates the ideas and poetic rhythms with which he had always been concerned. Published in 1951 in Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes’s thirteenth book of poetry, “Theme for English B” contributes to the book’s collection of African-American voices living in Harlem by questioning whether any voice—and any of our American voices in particular—can exist in isolation, distinct from those surrounding it. Stylistically, the piece is a dramatic monologue (in the voice of an African-American student at Columbia University, where Hughes himself spent a dissatisfying period during the early 1920s), and it utilizes the superficially simplistic rhymes for which Hughes had become famous. How he uses these techniques in this poem, however, differs somewhat from the way he winds the jazzy tunes of his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926), a book the established Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen claimed could not be “dismissed as merely promising.” Rather than use his poetic form to consolidate a distinctive sense of African-American identity, in “Theme for English B” Hughes flips and spins his rhymes in order to leave his reader wondering what actually distinguishes and divides the young black student in the poem from his socially established white professor.
Langston Hughes came to artistic prominence during the Harlem Renaissance, an explosive period of innovative creative expression in the New York African-American community in the early-twentieth century. In his poetry, plays, and fiction, Hughes attempted to blend a variety of forms of African-American cultural expression, and in his poetry, in particular, Hughes pioneered the rein-scription of jazz and blues tunes in written verse, paving the way for future writers to incorporate their own spoken folk vernacular in their own poems. While his contemporary critics often dismissed his work as simplistic or naive, Hughes’s position as one of the twentieth-century’s most important American poets is now openly recognized and celebrated.
Langston Hughes’s writing career stretched from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to the Black Arts movement of the 1960s. The most prolific African-American writer of his time, Hughes published sixteen collections of poetry, two novels, seven collections of short stories, two autobiographical works, five nonfictional texts, and nine books for children during his lifetime. He wrote thirty plays and either edited or translated numerous other collections. Not only was Hughes prolific, he was extremely well liked by a wide range of readers and, because of his popularity, was the first African American to make a living from his writing and lecturing alone. By the time his first book of poems was published, when he was just twenty-four years old, Hughes had already worked in a number of venues—from driving trucks, to waiting tables, to working on board the SS Malone as a seaman. He had also traveled extensively, visiting such places as Mexico, West Africa, Europe, and the Canary Islands.
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902 to James Nathaniel, a businessman, lawyer, and rancher, and Carrie Mercer Langston, a school-teacher. After graduating from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, he spent a little over a year in Mexico with his father before attending Columbia University. Quickly dissatisfied with the kind of formal education he was receiving there, Hughes left the university after a year. He went on to write, travel, lecture, and perform his poetry across this country and throughout the world. Hughes died on May 22, 1967, of congestive heart failure in New York City.
Even before his first book of poems appeared, Hughes had already established himself within the
artistic circle of the Harlem Renaissance with the 1921 publication of his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in Crisis, the key literary publication of the African-American arts community in New York. “I’ve known rivers,” he wrote in the poem, “I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. / I build my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. / ..... I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans......” Indeed, the driving force behind all of Hughes’s work seems to be a desire to articulate the experience and culture of the so-called “common man” and, more specifically, the laboring African American. As he noted in his famous description of race’s influence on artistic production, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” “we younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.”
The Weary Blues signaled Hughes’s drive to capture the style and patterns of African-American musical traditions in his writing. Blending written verse with “a drowsy syncopated tune,” Hughes’s title poem in that first collection describes the voice of a man Hughes hears in Harlem, “down on Lennox Avenue the other night,” a man who plays a “sad raggy tune like a musical fool. / Sweet Blues! / Coming from a black man’s soul. / O Blues!” While always staying close to the vernacular of the people and the working class, Hughes experimented with a range of forms and expressions throughout his career, publishing, for example, more overtly socialist pieces in the 1930s and a collection of poems lauding the natural world in Fields of Wonder in 1947.
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Hughes’s title categorizes the poem for us, generically. This is going to be an assignment, a “theme” composed for “English B,” a piece whose audience is essentially the speaker’s teacher. But the title also plays on several words here: what else, for instance, might Hughes be referring to when he introduces the concept of the “theme?” Could this poem, in part, comprise a “theme” for his book of poems or for whatever else “English B” might refer to—a black English? A discourse centered on and emanating from the African-American community? Or perhaps an English that is not recognized as being as first—as English “A”? The “B” that follows English certainly raises these questions even as it directs the reader to a central understanding of the piece’s generic classification—as an assignment for a class labeled “English B.”
This first stanza sets the scene for the poem, introduces its primary characters, and elaborates on the information already provided for us in the poem’s title. Here, Hughes tells us what the occasion for the “theme” and the poem will be—an apparently simple assignment, just a page to be written that somehow characterizes the writer. “Let that page come out of you,” the instructor commands, a necessity, he explains, if what is written is to be “true.” The equation here is that if one writes out of the self, then it will be a sincere and accurate representation of that self. But the speaker of the poem, after quoting the teacher’s description of the assignment, complicates this equation: “I wonder if it’s that simple?” Hughes therefore, at once, introduces the situation for this expression as well as the problem of its very existence. Is telling who we imagine ourselves to be enough to adequately represent the self? Can we possibly be “true” simply by expressing who we believe ourselves to be?
In these four lines, Hughes’s student speaker actually seems to begin the assignment (although it could easily be argued that in fact the assignment begins right away, when the speaker names this occasion for writing and qualifies its possible problems) by informing the reader of the most basic autobiographical details of the writer’s life. After explaining how old he is (we can infer that the speaker is male because we find out later that he lives at the YMCA rather than the YWCA), where he was born, and his educational history, the speaker adds one final, yet crucial, detail: “I am the only colored student in my class.” This detail “colors” the description in line 9 of Columbia University as “this college on the hill above Harlem”; while this is certainly accurate geographically, it acquires additional significance once we learn that the speaker is black and an inhabitant of Harlem. The location of Columbia “above Harlem” mirrors its social, political, and economic position within the larger culture as a university composed primarily of white students and faculty, citizens socially considered “above” the inhabitants of Harlem.
Here the speaker takes the reader on a tour of his own path home where the “page” will be written. The speaker descends from the university sitting high on its hill into Harlem in the way the gods of classical mythology descended into the world of mortal men from their elevated posts on Mount Olympus. He crosses a park and several streets to arrive at his home at the Y, short for YMCA, itself short for the Young Men’s Christian Association, where rooms are cheaply rented. This information adds to our sketch of the student writer by showing us that he lives by himself, away from home, and probably doesn’t have much extra money. It is ironic that the speaker tells us that we have finally arrived at the “place” where the page will be written, since we are already deep into that writing.
In lines 16 and 17, the student speaker directly questions the nature of the assignment and its seeming simplicity: “It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me / at twenty-two, my age.” He then attempts to explain, in his own deceptively simplistic way, what he believes composes himself or any self: “I guess I’m what / I feel and see and hear.” The line break between lines 17 and 18 emphasizes, in line 18, the fact that the speaker is a repository of sensual experience, feeling, seeing, and hearing such as any human with those sensual capabilities would be. But this expression is itself complicated by the speaker’s pronouncement that part of what he hears is Harlem. In line 19, Hughes uses commands to further develop this “theme,” commands that, despite their simple rhymes, encapsulate far from simple ideas: “hear you, hear me—we two—you, me talk on this page.” To whom “you” refers in line 19 becomes muddled: is “you” Harlem, as line 18 suggests, or New York (as he parenthetically adds he also hears in line 20), or perhaps the reader who, given what we’ve been told about the poem thus far, must be the speaker’s white professor? But if the speaker “is” what—and, one would presume, “who”—he feels, sees, and hears, then “who” he might be is hardly a simple thing.
- Two recent audio releases feature Langston Hughes reading and discussing his poetry: Langston Hughes Reads: “One Way Ticket,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “The Ku Klux Klan” and Other Of His Poems was released in 1992 by Caedmon, and Langston Hughes Reads and Talks About His Poems appeared in 1987 from Spoken Arts.
The complication of the “you, me” coupling who “talk on this page” sets us up for the final question the speaker asks in this section: “Me—who?”
In lines 21 through 24, the speaker attempts to return to more solid, identity-determining ground by defining himself in terms of his likes: “I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life,” etc. The records he likes “for a Christmas present” signify a range of tastes, from bebop to blues to classical music, and the speaker somewhat tentatively concludes in lines 25 and 26 that “being colored” doesn’t make him “not like / the same things” others do, whether “colored” or not. The line break for line 25 also allows Hughes to playfully mislead his reader; we expect, perhaps, that the speaker will say that being colored doesn’t make him unlike those of other races, but that of course would be saying something very different, and something Hughes’s student-speaker would most probably see as overly simplistic and inaccurate. Being “colored” doesn’t make the student “not like” those things others from other races might like, but it doesn’t mean he is “like” them either, simply because they might “like” the same things. The way in which Hughes plays with the multiple meanings of words such as “like” and “you” clearly indicates that a writer doesn’t need a highly academic vocabulary to deal with difficult concepts.
In these lines, Hughes further indicates the centrality of difference in establishing identity and particularly racial difference in America. Will “my page be colored that I write?” asks the student in line 27, and his answer indicates that it certainly will be: “being me, it will not be white,” he says, just as he indicates that it will also be in part something “like” white, given that it is necessarily a part of “you, instructor.” In lines 31 through 33, Hughes opens the “page” up to signify something more than simply this one student’s identity; here, we understand that in fact being “colored” is understandable only in terms of being “white,” just as the reverse is also true—the instructor is as much “a part of me, as I am a part of you,” and this is, as the student declares, “American.”
In lines 34 and 35, the student concedes that both he and his instructor may have wished to be more separate from one another than is possible: “Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. / Nor do I often want to be a part of you.” But the two are indivisible, nevertheless—“But we are, that’s true!” Here, the student has basically turned the assignment upside down. Rather than writing a page from himself that will be himself because he alone supposedly writes it, the student declares that no self is separable from the selves around it. No one white can exist as white without his/her “colored” counterpart, and vice versa. And so the student finally declares that, as much as the student can learn from his instructor, the instructor can learn from the student, although, as he says, “you’re older—and white— / and somewhat more free.” The student asserts his ability to teach figures in his American community who still maintain the positions of greatest authority in it. In line 40, the student avows that the free man can still learn something from those “less” free—the descendent of slaves and the still politically, economically, and socially marginalized member of American society. The final line, then, is full of irony. “This is my page for English B” re-situates the student— from whom we now understand the teacher himself can learn—in his student role, completing his assignment, while it also stresses the word “my” which, given how the speaker has complicated the whole issue of identity and self-determination, seems finally both simplistic and ironic.
The central questions Hughes poses in “Theme for English B” seem simple: who are we and how is it that we know who we are? Such questions, he suggests, must be simple because an instructor in a basic English class—“English B”—uses them as the basis for an almost offhand assignment: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you— / Then, it will be true.” But of course it is exactly this idea—that knowing who we are is never simple—that Hughes plays with throughout the duration of the poem. In it, he illustrates the various ways in which we come to understand our identities by having the student list the most basic autobiographical details about himself (how old he is, where he was born, where he now lives, etc.) and, later, by indicating the ways in which he likes to spend his time and the things he enjoys. But as is evident from the student’s initial autobiographical details—“I am the only colored student in my class,” he says in line 10—identity contains, or references, or “means” much, much more than this.
For Hughes’s student, identity is as much a product of racial distinction and difference as it isn’t a product of that. This idea—that we know who we are by virtue of who we are not (“You are white,” he says to the instructor, “yet a part of me, as I am a part of you”)—directly contradicts the Romantic, Emersonian idea that the self is an organic entity, internally and autonomously generated and sustained. Hughes makes clear that this student knows who he is in contradistinction to the white students who surround him and the instructor who tells him to “let that page come out of you.” But his sense of self is perhaps most importantly or positively linked to the Harlem he hears and celebrates throughout Montage of a Dream Deferred, the book in which “Theme for English B” appears. In “Theme for English B,” identity is something a community creates, whether that community be racially homogeneous (as Harlem is largely for the student and Columbia University is for his white professor) or racially heterogeneous and divided, as is the nation for both the student and his teacher. As the student explains, despite our differences and even our desires to pull apart and see ourselves as independent, autonomous, and not in relation to one another, we remain connected; “That’s American,” he says in line 33, indicating Hughes’s belief in a nationally influenced identity and how big this page would necessarily have to be in order to adequately represent any of us.
Race and Racism
Although the poem builds on the individual themes of identity and race or racism, in some sense
Topics for Further Study
- Write your own version of “Theme for English B,” listing all those things that you believe make you uniquely you. What would you have to do to accurately write a page that “came out of you”?
- Go through “Theme for English B” and note all the possible referents that exist for the pronouns in the poem. How does such an exercise help you to understand what Hughes is saying about identity in the poem itself?
- Write a dramatic monologue (a poem spoken from the voice of someone other than yourself) from the perspective of a person living in an area distinctly different from where you live. Imagine yourself living in that area and describe what you would see on your way to school and how it might make you feel to live there.
it is both unrealistic and disingenuous to separate these issues given that Hughes’s poem seems so poignantly to argue for their interconnectedness. Nevertheless, it is clear that Hughes would not want his reader to see “Theme for English B” as a poem only about the complications of identity and understanding who we are, but to also be made aware of the role race plays in the life of this young student at this time in America. This is the voice of the “only colored student in the class” at Columbia, a detail that highlights for the reader just who in New York City are receiving the best educations. The poem also introduces the reader to the dilemma of this student attempting to understand what sets him apart from his white peers: surely, he is not different in any essential way; he is human, he has likes, he wants to “work, read, learn, and understand life” just like anyone else. Yet, as lines 38 through 40 indicate, something divides him from his white professor, who is “somewhat more free” than he. Published in 1951, “Theme for English B” appears on the brink of the Civil Rights Movement when students like the one in the poem will begin to take direct action against the segregation that still divided (and to some extent still divides) America’s white and black communities. In this way, Hughes’s poem is prophetic. In just a couple of years, students like the one in “Theme for English B” will be using nonviolent techniques to open lunch counters and the fronts of buses to African Americans; they will also be using them to register African-Americans voters so that they can take their rightful places in a national political community.
“Theme for English B” is a lyric poem, which means that it is fairly brief, that it contains the thoughts of one speaker who speaks in the first person throughout the poem, and, rather than relying on action and plot to convey its point as a narrative poem would do, it largely reflects on the speaker’s experiences and feelings about those experiences. The lyric is the most common and popular form of poetic writing today.
“Theme for English B” is also a dramatic monologue insofar as it adopts the voice of a character and allows Hughes to speak in that character’s voice. In some ways, the fact that Hughes writes this as a dramatic monologue in and of itself indicates the slipperiness of identity that the poem’s speaker addresses; such a poem allows the poet to wear a mask of sorts and speak in someone else’s voice (a point that may or may not have particular relevance here given that Hughes certainly is relying on some autobiographical experience in the piece). Using the form of the lyric also allows us, the readers, to get as close to this experience as language can permit. In form, “Theme for English B” reveals the “self” of the speaker even as that speaker explains the complications of the very idea of a “self.”
In terms of Hughes’s use of sound in the poem, “Theme for English B” stands out from the rest of the poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred because it does not rely on the bebop boogie beat Hughes employed for most of the other poems. Hughes introduced the entire collection by saying: “In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed— jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like bebop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.” “Theme for English B” is certainly a “sharp and impudent interjection” in the collection, if only because it adopts a voice not marked by a African-American folk vernacular. Its rhythms are fairly straightforward; it sounds like a letter someone might write, or an account you might receive from a friend over dinner. But despite this apparently simple exterior, the poem does use rhyme and rhythm in interesting ways in order to stress some of its central points.
In the first stanza, Hughes’s speaker quotes the instructor’s directions for this assignment. Lines 2 through 5 embody that quote and each of these lines holds to a basic iambic pattern—one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. “Home” and “write” are stressed in line 2, “page” and “-night” in line 3, “let,” “page,” “out,” and “you” in line 4, and, save for the single stress of “Then” at the beginning of the line, “will” and “true” in line 5. However, after this fairly reliable rhythmic opening, Hughes sheds this pattern and follows no strict form whatsoever for the rest of the poem, until the final line when he returns—ironically, given what he’s illustrated within the piece—to the nursery rhyme-sounding pattern with which he began: “This is my page for English B,” he concludes, stressing “is,” “page,” the first syllable of “English,” and “B.” This format alone signifies the complexities Hughes will address within the piece, but of which the professor appears unaware. The rhythms’ complexities mirror those of the subjects covered.
Hughes uses internal rhyme in a similar way here. In stanza 3, lines 16 through 20, the student explores the interconnectedness of his sensual experiences (out of which he argues his identity is in part composed) with the things that spur those experiences, all of which indicate how layered his identity must be. Hughes underscores this idea by internally rhyming many of these words—“you,” “me,” “two,” “we,” “too,” and “who.” The rhymes mix these words up until it becomes difficult to clearly separate them, an effect Hughes also creates by employing tricky repetition. “Harlem, I hear you: / hear you, hear me—we two—you, me talk on this page. / (I hear New York, too.) Me—who?” the student finally asks, interweaving these pronouns to the point that no one can be sure to whom—or what—they refer; this is precisely the point Hughes seems to be trying to make elsewhere in the poem. By rhyming these key pronouns—and doing so very simply—Hughes indicates their inseparability on the level of sound. All of these words—and others, such as “white,” “write,” “true,” and “free”—are fundamental to the poem’s larger argument regarding identity and American racial awareness.
Langston Hughes “arrived” as a literary figure in American culture with the 1921 publication of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in The Crisis, the literary journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which itself had been formed out of The Niagra Movement in 1910. The Crisis was under the general editorship of W. E. B. Du Bois, perhaps the most prominent and vital spokesperson for African Americans at that time. It is significant that Hughes appeared on the literary scene at this time and in the pages of this magazine because both facts firmly establish him as one of the key figures in what has been called the Harlem Renaissance or the New Negro Renaissance. While “Theme for English B” did not actually appear in print until 1951, it is necessary to look at where Hughes’s career began and the conditions in which his writings were first grounded in order to understand how and why Hughes was doing what he was doing later on.
As critics have shown, an exact start date for the Harlem Renaissance is difficult, if not impossible, to discern. Scholars seem to agree that this phase of literary, artistic, and cultural development ended during the Great Depression, and certainly the 1920s saw its greatest achievements and events. But this explosion of artistic endeavor was prompted by a range of factors linked to World War I. While industrial production in northern cities increased, the pool of unskilled laborers decreased due to the war effort and the slowdown in foreign immigration brought about by the war. In 1914, the number of foreign immigrants was 1,218,480; in just one year, that figure dropped to 326,700, dropping again to just 110,618 only three years after that. At the same time, some four million citizens were drafted for military service. This situation propelled northern factory owners to solicit southern blacks for employment in their factories. According to David Levering Lewis, from 1915 on, “the South was full of agents recruiting labor for northern industry. Railroad tickets were dispensed gratis or advanced against forthcoming wages; trains backed into small towns and steamed away with most of the young and the fit; and the Chicago Defender
Compare & Contrast
- 1917: 2,132 African Americans attend American universities and colleges.
1927: 13,580 African Americans attend American universities and colleges.
1950: 180,830 African Americans hold an undergraduate or graduate degree from a four-year university or college in America.
1980: 1,163,000 African Americans are enrolled in American universities and colleges.
1990: 1,393,000 African Americans are enrolled in American universities and colleges.
- 1915: As many as 1,300,000 African Americans are either reading or having read to them the weekly national edition of the Chicago Defender. The impact of the newspaper on migration trends of African American to the North is, without doubt, immense.
1953: The Chicago Defender moves to a daily edition.
1998: Circulation for what is now the local, daily edition of the Chicago Defender is somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000. Due to falling subscriptions and a general decrease in readership, the historic newspaper is put up for sale by its current owners.
ballyhooed the milk and honey up North.” These factors, combined with the rising tide of Ku Klux Klan activity and lynchings in the South, led to what historians now refer to as the Great Migration of 1915. From Chicago to New York, northern cities saw a vast increase in African-American populations in the years just before the 1920s.
This migration led to the development of significant black communities in these cities. Harlem was not the only such area, but for the development of African-American culture and art, it was clearly the most influential. Outside of the Defender, Chicago’s leading national African-American newspaper, most key African-American publications came out of New York. The two most important of these were the Crisis and Charles S. Johnson’s Opportunity, published under the auspices of the National Urban League as, initially, a sociological journal intended to discuss issues of race; it quickly became a literary and arts magazine. Music and entertainment in Harlem were also rapidly growing and changing during this period, and, as historians have noted, it was during this time that the blues and ragtime played in Harlem’s night clubs contributed to the fusion of musical forms that led to the development of what we now call modern jazz. Ragtime had already taken over as one of the most popular kinds of music nationwide, and musicians such as James Reese Europe, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller further developed and expanded the music of African-American New York and Harlem.
Hughes, of course, was just one writer in a diverse and rich community of writers. Other poets, such as Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, were more interested in appropriating and redefining traditional poetic forms—the sonnet, for instance—to reflect their experience rather than expanding and incorporating the musical rhythms of jazz as were Hughes and poet Sterling Brown. Other key writers include Jean Toomer (whose Cane defies clear generic categorization, moving between poetry, prose, and drama in its pages), poets Gwendolyn Bennett and Arna Bontemps, novelist Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston, the anthropologist-folk-lorist with whom Hughes traveled in the deep South in the late 1920s. Hughes collaborated on a range of projects with most of these figures and many others who were key to the development of African-American cultural and artistic identity during the early part of the twentieth century.
The Depression of the 1930s brought an end to the time when, as historians put it, “Harlem was in vogue.” As Gerald Early notes, “the Harlem Renaissance is the story of the creation of a national black community but ..... blacks did not control or influence loans for mortgages, rent policies, small businesses, banking practices in general; in short, they did not control nearly any economic aspect of the community they wished to create. This is why the Harlem Renaissance failed and Harlem became a ghetto.” Certainly, the years following the Depression became increasingly politically and economically difficult for African Americans who suffered under segregation—both its legalized version in the South in the form of the notorious Jim Crow laws, and its informal, but no less powerful social dictates in the North. It was during this later period of increased political disenfranchisement that Hughes wrote “Theme for English B,” in which he questions American identity and race’s part in its inscription. And it was this period as well that spurred the events of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the question of racial discrimination gained long overdue national attention.
Scholars and critics today generally agree that the work of Langston Hughes exhibits a tremendous experimental force, one that derives its importance not simply from the influence it has had on other writers (particularly those working to integrate poetic discourse with more generally popular forms of expression, such as jazz or vernacular speech), but from the firm foundation it has provided later twentieth-century, African-American literary and artistic cultures. But the initial reception Hughes received as a writer was much less clearly positive. Countee Cullen reviewed Hughes’s The Weary Blues in the journal Opportunity when it came out, and his opening statement indicates the kind of mixed response Cullen himself had to the work— a response that was nonetheless admiring: “Here is a poet with whom to reckon,” Cullen says, “to experience, and here and there, with that apologetic feeling of presumption that should companion all criticism, to quarrel.” While excited by the possibilities inherent in Hughes’s melding of poetry with musical and folk forms, Cullen also believed that the poems were “one-sided” and tended to “hurl this poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple.” “There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes,” Cullen asserts, “and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems—they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field.”
Babette Deutsch reviewed Montage of a Dream Deferred for the New York Times Book Review when the book appeared, and she writes that “sometimes the verse invites approval, but again it lapses into a facile sentimentality that stifles real feeling as with cheap scent ......The book as a whole leaves one less responsive to the poet’s achievement than conscious of the limitations of folk art.” Many critics and writers responded to Hughes’s work in this vein, but even these acknowledged the expansiveness of Hughes’s experimentation in Montage. In another New York Times Book Review assessment of the collection, Saunders Redding claims that Hughes requires of his readers a “sophisticated ear” in order to appreciate the often jarring twists and turns of his rhythms and that, while Redding believes it’s time for Hughes to get on with saying the things he’s been seeking a proper form to say, these are things that Hughes, “alone of American poets, was born to say.” In another article published not long after the collection appeared, Arthur P. Davis claims that Montage offers the most mature and complete picture of Harlem that Hughes had attempted up to that time. As was the case with many of Hughes’s critics, even those that found him problematic, Davis concedes that when Hughes depicts “the hopes, the aspirations, the frustrations, and the deep-seated discontent of the New York ghetto,” he speaks for all African Americans living in urban ghettoized communities. Despite their own disgruntlement with his individual texts then, even Hughes’s most dissenting critics acknowledge and respect his attempts to give voice to the passions and opinions of a largely unheard community.
“Theme for English B” seems to be a poem of greater interest to critics of the latter half of the twentieth century—an observation that makes certain sense given the increased interest among literary scholars with the overall question of identity in general. Critics often refer to the voice in the poem as one particularly aware of the difficulties of understanding racial identity in twentieth-century America. According to Onwuchekwa Jemie, who published one of the first full-length studies of Hughes’s poetry, “Theme for English B” speaks to the biracial nature of American identity and how the experiences of Anglo and African Americans “interpenetrate, are defined one by the other, even though neither group relishes the idea.” In one of the most recent treatments of the collection and the poem in particular, David R. Jarraway calls “Theme for English B” “arguably the most important poem in the Montage sequence” because it “explodes the notion of a racially pure self.” In it, “the writer eventually realizes that neither his self nor the words that form the social and cultural extension of that self exist in a vacuum...... The call for intuitive self-expression, derived from a rigid separation between self and other, writing and reality, black and white, comes completely unraveled by the end.”
In a different vein, Gayle Pemberton returns to Hughes’s poem in order to understand what has been lost in the black—and white—communities of the late 1990s in her autobiographical and critical reflection, “Another ‘Theme for English B.’” She sees the central point in the poem to be the speaker’s ability to claim for himself, despite rampant racial inequality, “an equal share of the possibilities of imagination.” Pemberton goes on to ask “what about the imagination today?” and ironically surmises that at least one point of equality between blacks and whites is a significant loss of imagination due to an increased and increasingly dangerous materialist impulse in the culture. “Under such circumstances,” she says, “the guarded hope of mutual discovery, imagination, and life—of the mind, soul, and heart—found in Hughes’s ‘Theme for English B’ is an indecipherable hieroglyph from a long lost age.” Pemberton’s piece makes clear that, whatever it is we find there, there remains much for the contemporary reader to find in Hughes’s poem.
Kristina Zarlengo, who received her doctorate in English from Columbia University in 1997, taught literature and writing for five years at Columbia University. A scholar of modern American literature, her articles have appeared in academic journals and various periodicals. In the following essay, Zarlengo examines “Theme for English B” in its relationship as one part of the larger cultural statement of Montage of a Dream Deferred.
A poem that is both a college student’s tale of being asked to write an essay for his English class and the “true” essay he therefore writes, “Theme for English B” is also one piece of the long poem Montage of a Dream Deferred. Written in Harlem in 1948, and published in 1951, it is Hughes’s sustained effort at crafting a thoroughly modern, thoroughly relevant poem.
Appearing near its center is the brief “Theme for English B,” whose familar vocabulary and speech ryhthms make it read like something we might hear every day. The narrator, who wonders if his homework assignment is really simple, poses his question in a poem that seems to answer it— the question comes from the midst of an uncomplicated bunch of words. This poetry is free of the strange phrases and the forced language and rhythm that inspire many readers of poetry to revile the genre. On closer inspection, we realize that the poem’s themes are challenging, its patterns of rhythm, rhyme and sound refined. These marks of effort will never, however, remove from the poem its accessibility.
“Theme for English B” is written in free verse—it stays the track of no one rhythmic pattern; it has no regular rhyme scheme. It does, however, establish patterns. The instructor’s homework assignment, for instance, is in an aabb rhyme pattern. Then, “Salem” and “Harlem” begin to establish one rhyme every other line, while “class” and “Nicholas” briefly establish another. By the end of the first stanza, however, both end-rhyme patterns have disappeared. Brief, catchy rhymes will reap-pear—the rhymes “white,” “write,” and later “me,” “free,” and “B” are conspicuous. A rhyming poem, “Theme for English B” is, however, ready to abandon its rhymes.
Also repeating—also unpredictably—are the hill in Harlem; “a part of me” and” a part of you”; the important word “true”; and, clumped at the center of the poem, “hear”—five times. If we thus feel urged to hear this poem as much as we read it silently off the page, it’s no wonder: with “Theme for English B,” as for the whole of Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes wrote poetry closely tied to music—especially bebop. Rather than observing strict beat or sound patterns, Hughes favors musical phrases that use pattern as a springboard, rather than a limit: he prefers the melody to the metronome. Borrowing bebop’s skill with establishing assorted sound patterns only to break them, with making of tempo and beat an ornate cage, then flying the coop with improvisation, Hughes emulates jazz.
Always a jazz enthusiast, Hughes was, in 1948, particularly inspired by bebop, the kind of jazz developed by saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter
“Rather than observing strict beat or sound patterns, Hughes favors musical phrases that use pattern as a springboard, rather than a limit: he prefers the melody to the metronome.”
Dizzie Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk—all black Americans who cultivated their musical innovations in New York City between 1942 and 1950. At first playing in Harlem, bop musicians eventually attracted large white audiences that joined its longer-standing black audiences, signalling their “popular” success. Around 1944, bop albums were profitably produced, and the New York City jazz scene moved downtown to 52nd Street.
Bebop was an outgrowth of swing and big band music, whose catchy melodies and smooth rhythms had long attracted large audiences, even as the tunes’ simplicity had made them easy to learn by musicians with no special affiliation to the gospels, blues, and early jazz of black American musical tradition. Relative to these earlier traditions, bebop is a difficult style of music—difficult to master as a musician, difficult to dance or hum along with, and difficult to listen to. It was, therefore, in its way, all the more rewarding: while other musical forms do well as background music or as prompts for dancing, humming along, or imitating, bebop’s turbulent tempos, virtuoso improvisational solos, and intricate melodies made it an art form that accentuated the evanescence of the present and seemed to demand of audience and practitioners alike a careful attention to the tunes, which, if improvised, would never again be played in that form.
Around the time Hughes wrote “Theme for English B,” bebop was changing jazz’s status. Long considered a disreputable form of music, jazz in the form of bebop was beginning to be seen as a form of high art. Indeed, jazz has since been widely recognized as one of America’s most revered cultural products—a whole artistic form that could not have arisen elsewhere and that has forever reshaped the course of world music. In its day, however, it never shook its notoriety, even after bebop. Jazz recordings were often used to suggest an urban underworld where things fall apart. Jazz was regular background music for gangster films and television detective shows; for many audiences—especially those outside of the cities where jazz boomed—it was the soundtrack to seedy clubs and secret downtown back rooms.
For Hughes, however—a self-appointed, publicly applauded bard of black America—jazz was like what he wished his poetry to be: part of his people’s history—the extension of folk tradition, yet always fresh and thoroughly modern; approachable enough to draw crowds, yet capable of standing up well when measured by high art standards. Eventually, Hughes became something of a jazz performer himself, reading poems to the accompaniment of bassist Charles Mingus to packed audiences at the Village Vanguard, then later with a quintet, and with blues musicians at the Newport Jazz Festival. With Montage of a Dream Deferred, Hughes was at the height of applying bebop to poetry on the page. Alongside “Theme for English B” are sections titled “Flatted Fifths” (a term for the diminished fifth note on a scale—a “blue note” favored in bebop); “Jam Session” (the term for a session in which musicians play together with little predetermined structure); and “Be-Bop Boys.” The latter poem is laced with syllables from “scat singing,” the nonsense syllables sung by some jazz vocalists; the poem’s second section ends with “Oop-pop-a-da! / Skee! Daddle-de-do! / Be-bop! / Salt’peanuts! / De-dop!”
Montage of a Dream Deferred as a whole reads like scenes from a dream. Some sections contain the first-person anecdotes of Harlem residents: a Harlem old-timer who reflects on the area’s growth; a man who shudders at the news that his wife is pregnant again; someone who wants to crown his lover with the neon lights of Harlem. Other pieces are preacherly: the narrator tells the reader, “If you’re not alive and kicking, / shame on you!” In still other sections, slices of life are narrated by an undefined voice omniscient in the ways of Harlem:
Into the laps
of black celebrities
white girls fall
like pale plums from a tree
beyond a high tension wall
wired for killing
which makes it
“The mood of the blues is almost always despondency,” Hughes wrote, “but when they are sung people laugh.” A similar mood of intermixed sadness and laughter unites the disparate sections of Montage of a Dream Deferred. But the poem’s greatest cohesion is its motif of the deferred dream. Hughes is riveted by the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?”: What happens in the gulf between America’s promise and what it delivers? A place of sweet relations, dancing, and smiles, Hughes’s Harlem is never just cheery: he tells of homes lost to greedy landlords, lives lost to drunk oblivion, youths lost in bleak labor, dreams that yield to world.
In “Harlem,” one of the poem’s final pieces, in lines that have since become their own kind of gospel, Hughes asks his question, then tries out some answers:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
and then run?
Or crust up and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
This passage—a distillate of Montage of a Dream Deferred—delivers not answers but urgency. What happens to that dream is a question that burns, that involves us. Highly accessible, easily readable, catchy in its diction, Montage of a Dream Deferred also borrows its title from a pictorial technique developed by avant-garde painters in which cutout illustrations, or their fragments, are arranged together. In a montage, ready-made images—sometimes called found art—are collected together into an assembly in which each fragment changes the appearance of each other, and, united, they point to a subject and a message no fragment could illustrate alone. For Hughes, high art and the quotidian—such as social and aesthetic aims— were always and everywhere the same. In urging us, Hughes also asserts the high relevance of questions of everyday social conditions. His normalcy is cultivated.
In the context of the montage of which it is a fragment, “Theme for English B” is in some ways incongruous. Its first person narrator, a twenty-two-year-old student at the “college on the hill above Harlem” (Columbia University) has moved to New York from the South, where he was raised and schooled. The move itself is suggestive of the migrations
What Do I Read Next?
- Langston Hughes was not only the writer, but the editor of a significant body of fiction. The Best of Simple, a “greatest hits” collection of Hughes’s stories featuring his popular folk character, Simple, appeared in 1990. Also of interest is the collection of African-American short stories Hughes edited in 1969—The Best Short Stories by Black Writers: The Classic Anthology from 1899 to 1967.
- Hughes published two autobiographies in his lifetime, both of which were recently reissued in 1993 by Hill and Wang Press. The Big Sea: An Autobiography originally appeared in 1940 and I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey first came out in 1956.
- The Harlem Renaissance saw the emergence of many central women writers of the century; Zora Neale Hurston is one of these, and her Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) tells the story of a woman struggling to find love and happiness in Hurston’s native Florida.
- Produced by the Center of Black Music, Columbia College, Chicago and edited by Samuel A. Floyd, Black Music in the Harlem Renaissance: A Collection of Essays (1994) establishes that the musical developments of the Harlem Renaissance—forms that Hughes played with in all of his writing—were indeed central to a more global development of black culture.
north of blacks who sought a better social world than that of the oppressive South, but our narrator is also living another black—and indeed universal—American dream: going to college. It seems, then, that he has realized his dreams; he is living an unfolding promise.
His geography is more complicated, though, than one dividing North and South. A college student, he is, however, the only colored student in his class. The college on a hill over Harlem therefore experiences little traffic between Harlem and itself.
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.”
What’s more, our narrator supposes, “I’m what / I feel and see, Harlem, I hear you: / hear you, hear me.” When his English instructor in college, who knows nothing of the world he lives in, asks of him a true page, he knows he will be writing about Harlem. That is, he knows himself to be a portion of the world where he lives. This insight—this “guess”—transforms his assignment into a lesson for the teacher. He asks:
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white
But it will be a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Our narrator is a witness to how his dream must affect other colored people and the place where he lives before it will have been realized. We are all of a part, he insists. “Sometimes,” he says, “perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me,” (and indeed, the instructor’s college seems to want to be on a hill above Harlem without being in Harlem or educating its residents). “Nor do I often want to be a part of you,” he rejoins, then delivers the truth that has been asked of him: “But we are, that’s true!” what’s more, “That’s American.” America, our narrator claims, is all of its parts. All of its parts are its people—you and I are America, the Harlem slum lord and the Harlem girl on the stoop are America. And the American dream is a dream of all people; no one can have it when others are refused it.
It is tempting to identify the voice of “Theme for English B” as Hughes’s own. Raised poor, he, too, attended Columbia University. Hughes, too, was a favored American dreamer—he was educated, well travelled, and eventually widely hailed. He wrote novels, poems, operettas, autobiographies, biographies, newspaper columns, children’s books, and histories of blacks in America. Indeed, he wrote Montage of a Dream Deferred after having realized his long dream of owning a home—in Harlem. And like the narrator of “Theme for English B,” Hughes wanted to participate in not just his own prosperity, but that of the people and places that made him; Hughes made of his own successes an amplified demand that they be better shared by his people.
But the poem’s narrator is not Hughes. Hughes hailed not from the South, but from the Midwest. Also, Hughes’s race was mixed. Of black, white, and Indian ancestry, he alone was part white, part black—as the poem’s narrator says all of America is. The differences between Hughes and the narrator of “Theme for English B” may be of a part with Hughes’s career-long ideal of focusing on the archetypal black man—a man similar to, but also distinct from, Hughes himself. In the estimate of his biographer, Arnold Rampersand, Hughes’s “surge of art” resulting in Montage of a Dream Deferred came out of his feeling “the depth of his emotional dependency on the black masses, as well as his painful detachment from them both as an artist endowed with second sight and, suddenly, as a bourgeois property owner.” Whether or not his alliance with all blacks, everywhere, was produced out of such a reverse identification and sense of longing, Hughes himself clung always to the concerns of the black working-class American. In doing so, he produced what is sometimes called social art:
Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet, after every reading, I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? ..... Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so much Jazz poems?
One of Hughes’s books features a wise but simple, brash poor black man, a character named Simple, who declares that the term bebop comes from police brutality against blacks: “Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club that old club says Bop! Bop! ..... BE -BOP! ..... MOP! ..... BOP!” As tragicomic an explanation as this is for the birth of bebop, it is also a serious example of Hughes’s understanding of the relationship between social circumstance and art: neither is identifiable without the other. And in the prolific writing that at once realized his own American Dream of social acclaim and trumpeted the urgent beauties and damned the persistent oppression of American black people, Hughes manages to capture despondency without romanticizing it—indeed, he demands that we overcome it. In managing this approach, Hughes did not, in the end, work in a poetic form much like that of complexly stunning bebop composition: Hughes’s work, such as “Theme for English B,” is always accessible, right away. He therefore did not prevent imitators, but inspired them—opening up audiences, earning international acclaim, and changing American literary history. “The realistic position assumed by Hughes has become the dominant outlook of all those Negro writers who have something to say,” wrote Richard Wright. “Hughes’s role has become,” he added, “that of a cultural ambassador.”
Source: Kristina Zarlengo, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Jeannine Johnson received her Ph.D. from Yale University and is currently a visiting assistant professor of English at Wake Forest University. In the following essay, Johnson reveals the ways in which the short poem “Theme for English B” encapsulates Hughes’s larger poetic projects.
“Theme for English B” is the forty-ninth of eighty-seven lyrics in Langston Hughes’s long poetic sequence titled Montage of a Dream Deferred(1951). Even though Hughes assigns titles to each of the shorter poems included in Montage, he imagined this work as a single, unified poem. The whole gives coherence to the parts, and it may be best to think of Montage of a Dream Deferred as a mosaic of lyrics that vary in voice, theme, imagery, vocabulary, and structure. Having no single subject, speaker, or setting, there is a sense of transience in the poem, and it is therefore appropriate that there are no lengthy poems or sustained meditations. Montage of a Dream Deferred moves relentlessly forward, capturing the irregular rhythms of ordinary life, demonstrating how art and beauty can be made from the artless and ugly. There is also a musical strain throughout the poem, as the rhythms of jazz and bebop drive the text. Hughes, in a prefatory note to Montage of a Dream Deferred, describes his poetic design this way:
In terms of current Afro-American popular music and the sources from which it has progressed—jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie, and be-bop—this poem on contemporary Harlem, like be-bop, is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of a jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and distortions of the music of a community in transition.
The “community in transition” of which Hughes speaks is, first, Harlem in particular and, second, African-American culture in general. For Hughes, as for many other African-American artists who lived during the 1920s and 1930s and witnessed its renaissance, Harlem is a symbol of excellence in black creative production in America. As Hughes argues, its music accommodates the various, irregular, and sometimes conflicting rhythms, ideas, and experiences of black life and expression. Of course, when he speaks of Harlem’s music, he is also referring to its poetry and to the ideals toward which his own poetry strives. “Theme for English B” exemplifies the style Hughes details in his preface to Montage of a Dream Deferred, as it contains conflicts within sound and meter as well as within the personality of the poem’s speaker. This brief poem encapsulates Hughes’s theories of poetry as well as any of his single lyrics and demonstrates that the identity of the poet is inevitably influenced by nonpoetic factors.
There is a strong autobiographical element in this poem, but like all good poems, “Theme for English B” is not a transparent reproduction of the poet’s actual past. Hughes did not grow up in North Carolina, as his poetic persona did, but in the Midwest. Nevertheless, Hughes did attend Columbia University in the early 1920s, and Columbia appears in the poem as the “college on the hill above Harlem.” The situation he describes comes generally from his personal experience, consolidated and modified to create this specific incident. At the core of the poem is Hughes’s concern with the relationship between race and literature. The poet is both flippant and serious when he asks, “So will my page be colored that I write? / Being me, it will not be white.” When he was a student at Columbia, Hughes intended one day to become a professional writer, but even then he recognized that as a black man aspiring to join a largely white vocation, he faced potential difficulties that ranged from the personal to the artistic to the professional. Hughes left Columbia after that first year and, within a relatively short time, began to publish some of his writing. Still, he was not making enough money to support himself, and even after modest success with the publication of two poetry collections and Not Without Laughter (1930), his first novel, Hughes still wondered whether he, “a Negro, could make a living in America from writing.” He recalls in his autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), that he could not imagine compromising his literary vision, despite the racial barriers that existed in this country: “There was one other dilemma—how to make a living from the kind of writing I wanted to do. I did not want to write for the pulps, or turn out fake ‘true’ stories to sell under anonymous names as Wallace Thurman did. I did not want to bat out slick non-Negro short stories in competition with a thousand other commercial writers trying to make The Saturday Evening Post. I wanted to write seriously and as well as I knew how about the Negro people, and make that kind of writing earn for me a living.”
These same sentiments inform “Theme for English B” which, like I Wonder as I Wander, is a retrospective account, written many years after his early days as a writer. 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. In his poem, he puts it simply: “You are white— / yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. / That’s American.” Hughes recognizes that this ideal view is not without its challenges and admits, “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!” And though he is certain that there must be mutual respect and reciprocity, the poet ends with an acknowledgement of the inequalities of present circumstances: “As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me— / although you’re older—and white— / and somewhat more free.”
Though Hughes accepted and welcomed the critical praise his writing received from professional, mostly white readers, he wrote with a popular, African-American audience in mind. The divisions between the educated and the uneducated, between black and white, between the varying uses of poetry, are evident in “Theme for English B.” Is poetry for personal use, as a vehicle for self-expression? Or is there a communal component to poems? Is poetry a space of privilege or an egalitarian realm? How do race and class influence poetic language? Is poetry to be composed out of obligation (such as to fulfill a class requirement)? Or are there other, more valuable motivations for writing poetry? The poem opens with his instructor’s voice: “Go home and write / a page tonight. / And let that page come out of you— / Then it will be true.” Throughout the rest of the poem, Hughes both ridicules and confirms this philosophy of poetry. The poet asks, “I wonder if it’s that simple?” And he shows that, in fact, there is nothing simple about establishing and then writing from a particular identity. Hughes wonders who he is: “Me— who? / Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. / I like a pipe for a Christmas present, / or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.” As he inspects his individuality, he discovers a conflation of white and black cultural influences and is confronted again with questions of ethnicity.
For Hughes, poetry is to some degree about self-expression and self-exploration, especially when the “self” is understood to mark the identity of an individual who is always affected by and affecting a larger culture. More than that, the goal of Hughes’s poetry is communication—creating and employing language and forms that can authentically convey the visions of African-American artists. “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.” Though Hughes imagines an intimate conversation between himself and other African Americans, he adds “(I hear New York, too.)” He acknowledges that white Manhattan also inhabits his poem. The parentheses diminish the importance of white influence, but they do not altogether eliminate it. Nevertheless, the presence of white New York is not as significant as that of Harlem’s, and even though the poet adopts the fictional pose of writing for a white English professor, his true aim is to reach black readers.
In I Wonder as I Wander, Hughes writes of his motives for embarking on a speaking tour of the South in the early 1930s and also of his fears that his poetry will not be received by his intended audience. “I did not want a job. I wanted to continue to be a poet. Yet sometimes I wondered if I was barking up the wrong tree. I determined to find out by taking poetry, my poetry, to my people. After all, I wrote about Negroes, and primarily for Negroes. Would they have me? Did they want me?” As Hughes discovered, many blacks—from North and South—did want him and embraced his poetry. Over the next few decades, Hughes became very well known and was generally well respected as a major figure in black letters. However, by the time that Montage of a Dream Deferred was published, Hughes’s reputation had changed from that of a voice for his people to that of a spokesman for outdated ideas. Some intellectuals, both black and white, had begun to criticize Hughes’s poetry as too conservative and even as old-fashioned.
Throughout his life, some small piece of Hughes’s early concern about his work’s reception remained with him. Yet he never wavered in his rather grand conception of the nature and purpose of poetry itself. In his biography of Hughes, literary critic Arnold Rampersad quotes Hughes’s definition of poetry, as offered in a 1951 lecture: “Poetry is rhythm—and, through rhythm, has its roots deep in the nature of the universe; the rhythms of the stars, the rhythm of the earth moving around the sun, of day, night, of the seasons, of the sowing and the harvest, of fecundity and birth. The rhythms of poetry give continuity and pattern to words, to thoughts, strengthening them, adding the qualities of permanence, and relating the written word to the vast rhythms of life.”
Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Chris Semansky’s fiction, poetry, and essays appear regularly in literary journals and magazines such as Mississippi Review, College English, and American Letters & Commentary. In the following essay, Semansky argues that “Theme for English B” complicates the idea that lyric poems can truthfully represent a coherent, stable self.
One of the primary features of a lyric poem is that it expresses the thoughts and feelings of its speaker. The assumption of such poems is that by describing what is inside of them, narrators of lyrics are able to articulate the truth about themselves. Expression, then, assumes that the speaker has a coherent identity that is accessible and only needs to be retrieved and described in order to manifest the truth.
In his poem “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes complicates the idea that the lyric “I” is a reflection of a coherent, stable identity by calling into question the notion that one can reveal the truth simply by expressing oneself. Instead, Hughes suggests that the self, rather than being coherent and autonomous, is actually the effect of relationships. These relationships inevitably involve power and, in Hughes’s case, include race, age, national, and professional identity.
Hughes frames the idea that expression can get at the truth by exploring what we can only take to
“... Hughes suggests that the self, rather than being coherent and autonomous, is actually the effect of relationships.”
be an autobiographical encounter between himself and one of his college teachers. After introducing his teacher’s assignment instructions for an essay, Hughes spends the rest of the poem responding to them and exposing their faulty assumptions. He answers his instructor’s directive to go home and write by first questioning the directive’s apparent simplicity and then by providing a brief history of his home. He tells us that he is a black man who was born in the South (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and is now attending a white school in the North (Columbia University in New York City). These differences alone complicate the assignment, as they highlight Hughes’s feeling of alienation and the difficulty of “going home.” Underscoring this difficulty is the speaker’s description of the long route he takes to his current home, a room at the Harlem YMCA, and his description of Harlem—a predominantly black community—as literally down the hill from the university. By characterizing his “home” in terms of distance and difficulty, Hughes emphasizes how “un-simple” description is; how, regardless of what we say or write about something, we are always taking a position because we are saying one thing instead of another. If, for example, he had described himself in terms of gender (male) and sexuality instead of age and race, and if he had described Columbia University in terms of how it appeared rather than where it was in relation to Harlem, we would have a completely different image of Hughes and his dilemma.
In the second stanza, Hughes moves from description to meditation, as he continues to ponder the very possibility of fulfilling his white instructor’s assignment.
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
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Here the speaker underlines the fact that what is true for him might not be true for his instructor. But he isn’t quite sure of what is true for himself. Even the outside world that he sees, feels, and hears isn’t enough to provide a definition of his identity. Though he identifies with Harlem (presumably because of its black population), he also recognizes that Harlem itself is a part of a larger entity, New York City. Hughes then moves from answering his instructor to answering himself, as he ruminates on what makes him different from others. His search for difference, in this case, instead yields both similarities and differences, as he first lists relatively common human desires—“Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.”—then more personal preferences—“I like a pipe for a Christmas present, / or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.” This recognition of commonality and separateness returns him once again to the assignment, as he asks, “So will my page be colored that I write?”
Hughes provides the answer in the rest of the poem. But it is not a simple answer. His meditation on the assignment has led him to conclude that he is not one thing or another, but rather one thing and another. His black identity rests on the fact that there is also a white identity; his identity as a Southerner rests on the fact that there is a North; his identity as a student rests on the fact that there is a teacher; and his youth rests on the fact that there are those older than him. All of these relationships, Hughes suggests, not only help constitute the way that he thinks of himself, the image of himself that he carries around, but also the way that his teacher (and by implication, all human beings) thinks of himself.
For Hughes, this idea that the many are contained in the one is a common denominator of the American national identity. In this way he echoes the ideas of Walt Whitman, the nineteenth-century American poet who regarded each individual as a microcosm of society and the universe. But rather than singing the praises of American democracy and equality as Whitman did, Hughes points out that although Americans’ differences help form what they take to be their own “individual” identities, these differences also help to make some of these identities less equal than others: students are subordinate to teachers; whites are more privileged than blacks, etc. After acknowledging the ways in which his own identity informs his teacher’s identity and vice versa, Hughes addresses his teacher, saying:
As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
His hesitancy (“I guess you learn from me”) and his claim that because his teacher is older and white, he is “somewhat more free” than him underscore the role that power plays in all of the relationships the poem explores. That Hughes (as student) feels “free” to write these things to his instructor demonstrates that to a certain extent he has managed to overcome (or at least challenge) the limitations of his various identities. In so doing, he has fulfilled the directions of the assignment to “let the page come out of you.” Or has he?
By questioning his instructor’s very directions, the student-speaker is questioning his instructor’s authority. While some instructors might think this action shows independent thinking and reward the student for such an action, it isn’t clear that this will be the case in this poem. Hughes’s description of the situation and of the instructor suggest that the instructor is most likely fairly conventional in his thinking (consider the generic nature of the assignment and the fact that the student isn’t certain that the instructor can learn anything from him). Rather than seeing this poem as an example of creative independent thinking, the instructor might very well punish the student both for challenging him and for writing a poem instead of an essay. Seen in this light the poem, then, becomes an act of rebellion—of questioning the instructor’s very identity as teacher. Such a response would be ironic if we consider that the very act of writing the poem is a result of the power relationships that make the student who he is. More ironic still would be the teacher’s blindness to the very relationships that also form him.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
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Hutchinson, George, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.
Jarraway, David R., “Montage of an Otherness Deferred: Dreaming Subjectivity in Langston Hughes,” American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 4, 1996, pp. 819-47.
Lauter, Paul, ed., The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2, second edition, Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1994.
Martin, Henry, Enjoying Jazz, New York: Macmillan Books, 1986.
Mullen, Edward J., ed., Critical Essays on Langston Hughes, Boston: G.K. Hall, 1986.
Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, two volumes, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Wright, Richard, “The Big Sea,” A Journal of Opinion, October 28, 1940.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds., Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, New York: Amistad Press, 1993.
Gates and Appiah present a range of critical texts regarding Hughes’s work in this collection, including contemporary reviews of Hughes’s publications and scholarly essays on those same collections. The reviews are particularly interesting, given that they provide the best portrait of Hughes’s critical reception at the time he was actively writing and publishing.
Jemie, Onwuchekwa, Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry, New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.
Jemie’s text is the first full-length treatment of Hughes’s poetry. In it, Jemie carefully works his way through the breadth of Hughes’s work, making connections between the different kinds of experimentation Hughes attempted and the themes that run throughout all the poems.
Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue, New York: Knopf, 1981.
Lewis provides a clear and lively depiction of Harlem during the period to which we now refer as the Harlem Renaissance, moving easily between general descriptions of this community and what affected its growth and development and individual portraits of the people who figured prominently in it.
Pemberton, Gayle, “Another ‘Theme for English B,’” in The Ethnic Moment: The Search for Equality in the American Experience, edited by Philip L. Fetzer, New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1997, pp. 137-50.
In this autobiographical essay, Pemberton first talks about what she finds interesting to her personally about Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” even reprinting the poem to completely orient her reader. She then goes on to talk about her own experience with her father in order to demonstrate what she sees as a decline in imagination in all late twentieth-century American readers, both black and white, in particular a decline in the ability to imagine ourselves free from the psychological and economic constraints of a highly materialistic society.