The poem “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes depicts a black young adult who is attempting to fgure out what is true in his life via an English assignment. As the only black male in his college English class, the speaker is not sure whether to take on the persona of a typical English student, regardless of race, or to stay true to his heritage and culture. The structure of this poem conveys a struggle for identity and truth in a fast-paced world whose ideas are constantly changing.
The poem begins with a quote from the speaker’s English instructor, claiming that any piece written rom the heart will automatically be true. However, in the next stanza, the speaker expresses doubts about his instructor’s advice. However, the student finds himself unsure of who he is, what he stands for, and what is “true” for him. Being “the only colored student in [his] class,” he feels like somewhat of an outcast from the other students. He lists facts about himself that set him apart from his classmates, including the fact that he is the only African American man in his class and that he resides in Harlem.
In the third stanza, the speaker then switches to expressing traits he knows to be similar between himself and his classmates, “l like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love. / I like to work, read, learn, and understand life” By showing that he has things in common with his peers, even though they are very different at first glance, the speaker is depicting his dilemma at fguring out who he is and how he fits in with the world. He is both a part of Harlem and a part of a mostly white English class: “l guess I’m what / I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you. While he holds nto his African American culture, he also acknowledges that it does not define him as a person: “l guess being colored doesn’t make me not like / the same things other folks like who are other races. ” The speaker comes to the conclusion that although he is different from his peers in some ways, they are all Americans with common likes and purposes. Therefore, he, his classmates, and his instructor will all learn from each other, increasing the diversity, richness, and truth that they can discover because, although they have parallels, everyone can bring a different perspective, or heir own truth, to the table to share.
A quick scan through the lines of this poem reveals the frequent use of the words “l”, “me”, and “you”, which are a clue for the poem’s overall theme: should one find his identity through his race, or through ordinary, everyday elements, likes and dislikes, enjoyable pastimes and perceptions of life? In lines 6-15 alone, the word “l” is used to ask questions, tell his age, race, and birthplace, his college, and route home to the Harlem Branch YMCA. This is how he identifies himself outwardly to others. The third tanza uses “l” and “me” to compare himself to “you”, the instructor.
The speaker identifies himself with Harlem in the lines which read “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. ” Many black people during this time were inspired by Harlem’s empowerment of their community. Having a black heritage was seen as positive and black poets, musicians and authors thrived in Harlem. The speaker has likely been encouraged by living in Harlem, and therefore sees his black identity in direct ontrast to “you”, the white identity of his instructor.
He’s not entirely sure, though, because the snort line “Me – who? ” (II. 20) indicates that his identity isn’t clear to him, or maybe to whites. The fourth stanza’s conclusion about this issue recognizes that to allow blacks to be proud of their heritage is “American” (II. 33). I find this poem very easy to relate to both for myself and any other young adult or college student who is still trying to fgure out how to relate to other people in “real life”.
It can sometimes e hard to find commonalities with new acquaintances, especially when my peers and I come from such diverse and varying backgrounds. Although, I have lived in a very large city for my entire life, I have met people in college from almost every state and every situation imaginable. It can be overwhelming and easy to recede back into one’s comfort zone of easily stated facts, such as race and hometown. However, if one digs a little deeper, it is not hard to find small similarities like the speaker in the poem does: “l like to work, read, learn, and understand life” (Hughes 22).
I find myself surrounded by active, engaging people who pursue a multitude of topics, some similar to my own interests and others that I have never even thought about pursuing. I feel as if Langston Hughes captures my exact feelings on the matter of diversity when he writes, “As I learn from you, / I guess you learn from me” (Hughes 37-38). Rather than isolating ourselves, we can choose to find similarities among our peers, creating a rich environment with many perspectives from which to learn while seeking out truth and knowledge in all situations.