Theme for English B

 

§        Hughes’s title categorizes the poem for us: an assignment whose audience is essentially the speaker’s teacher. But the title also plays on several words here: 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”?

 

Lines 1-6

Ø     sets the scene for the poem, introduces its primary characters, elaborates on the information already provided for us in the poem’s title.

Ø     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.

Ø      “I wonder if it’s that simple?” 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?

 

Lines 7-10

Ø     student speaker begins the assignment by informing the reader of the most basic autobiographical details of his life: 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

Ø     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.

 

Lines 11-15

Ø     takes the reader on a tour of his own path home where the “page” will be written.

Ø     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.

Ø     He crosses a park and several streets to arrive at his home at the Y 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.

 

Lines 16-20

Ø     speaker directly questions the nature of the assignment and its seeming simplicity. He then attempts to explain, in his own deceptively simplistic way, what he believes composes himself or any self.

Ø      The line break between lines 17 and 18 emphasizes, in line 18, the fact that the speaker is a repository of sensual experience.

Ø     this expression is complicated by the 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.”

Ø     who “you” refers in line 19 becomes muddled: is “you” Harlem, or New York, or perhaps the reader (the speaker’s white professor)? But if the speaker “is” what he feels, sees, and hears, then “who” he might be is hardly a simple thing.

Ø     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?”

 

Lines 21-26

Ø      speaker attempts to return to more solid, identity-determining ground by defining himself in terms of his likes

Ø      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.

Ø      The line break for line 25 also allows Hughes to playfully mislead his reader; we expect 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.

Ø      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.

 

Lines 27-33

Ø      further indicates the centrality of difference in establishing identity and particularly racial difference in America.

Ø      Will “my page be colored that I write and his answer indicates that it certainly will be just as he indicates that it will also be in part something “like” white, given that it is necessarily a part of “you, instructor.”

Ø      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.”

 

Lines 34-41

Ø      the student concedes that both he and his instructor may have wished to be more separate from one another than is possible but the two are indivisible.

Ø      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.

Ø      student finally declares that, as much as the student can learn from his instructor, the instructor can learn from the student.The student asserts his ability to teach figures in his American community who still maintain the positions of greatest authority in it.

Ø      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.

Ø      The final line 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.

 

 

Themes?      Identity and Race