Theme for English B

In celebration of Poetry Month, I have been writing A poem – A day.
Check out my poetry page: 10.28Broadway .

Here is a poem that drew my interest. This poem may have been written a long time ago but its appeal has never changed. Somehow, when I write a poem, essay, story, or whatever it is, it actually takes something out of my life. It triggers some kind of emotion that I have experienced before. It digs my story consequently, in some level, reveals my present. Let’s see how this poem, “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes (1949) affects you.

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of youβ€”
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

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 meβ€”we twoβ€”you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Meβ€”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 recordsβ€”Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
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 whiteβ€”
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from meβ€”
although you’re olderβ€”and whiteβ€”
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

I wish I have known about this poem when I was teaching at a state university in Palawan. Not that I would expect my students to refer to the difference the black narrator of the poem has from his white instructor but for how much impact would be looking at self can one learn to discover similarities.  That the student is a part of the teacher as much as the teacher is a part of the student. The essay below is a homework I did as a student, let’s see how you grade me. πŸ™‚

“Theme for English B” is one of the popular poetries from Langston Hughes at the time of Harlem Renaissance. Although it was reportedly written in 1949, it was a part of Hughes’ chapbook called “Montage of a Dream Deferred” published in 1951. Langston was influenced by jazz poetry style, which focused on describing the Harlem neighborhood. The narrative poem carries the reader into the life of a young colored college student on his way from school to his apartment to write a composition about himself. It literally navigates the neighborhood and how he sees himself. In a sort of epiphany, he also compares himself to his “White” professor who asked him to write the autobiographical composition.

On the contrary, this poem does not seem to be a part of the author’s autobiography. Langston was born in Joplin, Missouri while the young student was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Langston finished his studies in a predominantly white High School in Cleveland, Ohio before going to Columbia University. Meanwhile, the character of the poem studied in Durham before going to what sounded like the Free Academy of New York (now City College). Both schools mentioned in the poem are part of the North Carolina’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Interestingly, in 1941 Langston moved back in New York City and lived at 634 St. Nicholas Ave., a few steps from the park he mentioned in the poem. Although the poem’s protagonist lives in the Harlem YMCA, a fifteen-minute walk from either Langston’s apartment or that college above Harlem.

This poem follows a narrative style of poetry involving few literary features like 1.) The Characters. The poem introduces “the instructor” who is a pivotal character in the story. The narrator is a twenty-two-year-old colored college student, presumably Black, which is about to write his “truest” autobiography. 2.) The Plot. The young protagonist of the poem journeys from his classroom to his apartment. It involves a conflict of a man within himself. The young student is trying to figure out a way of finding his “truest” self through writing on a page following a vague instruction from his professor. The story’s climax peaked on the part where he realizes that he likes the same thing as other races do but looking at his skin, it will not be the same as his professor’s. Although, the professor may or may not admit it, but both of them are parts of each other because they are both Americans. 3.) The Setting. On the second verse, the young student walks from the steps of the college above Harlem, through the park, crossing St. Nicholas, Eighth, and Seventh avenues towards the Harlem branch of YMCA. Meanwhile, on the third verse, he appeals to the readers’ senses when he mentions that he feels and sees and hears Harlem (and New York, too). There is a sense of being a connected to the neighborhood in a very personal and emotional level. That going about his day-to-day, as simple as eating, drinking, reading, and sleeping is living and understanding he is a part of Harlem.

Langston Hughes made a very simple title for Theme for English B. The words used in the poem are also simple and informal. The tone of the poem sounded neutral. However, if the reader goes back to the Harlem Renaissance, it will elicit a deeper understanding of the pre-Civil Rights Movement and how Harlem viewed racial segregation. This poem did not use any type of irony to make its dramatic effect. Instead, it utilized concrete and straightforward word choices that drew imagery of a battle between a supremacy of a “freer” white person against the inferior Harlem black young student. The “white” person in the poem though older is the authoritative voice at the beginning of the poem. This character in the poem was introduced with an italicized statement that showed “the only spoken words.” At the end of the poem, Langston revealed that this authority is White. Langston could have used a Black professor but decided otherwise. On the other hand, the Black student, void of any choice, wrote the autobiographical theme for “submission” to the White instructor.

“Theme for English B” is a good example of Harlem Renaissance jazz poetry. It lacked the use of traditional poetry rhythm but it is full of emotion of that period. Langston included alliteration in line 24 as the young boy enumerated what records he liked for Christmas: “–Bessie, bop, or Bach.” This poem employed the style of jazz poetry incorporating syncopated rhythm. It showed interruptions in the flow of rhythm making it offbeat to evoke intensified emotion. It took advantage of repetitive phrases and words like a real blues and jazz music would engage the readers with simple words that implementing a deeper emotional meaning.


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