Hughes penned “Theme for English B” in 1949 at the age of 47. Here the word ‘English’ stands as a symbol for universality; It does not need to be attributed with any grade (A, B) to mark its significance.The speaker in the poem is an imaginary one conceived by Langston Hughes and not the poet himself, as the speaker is ‘born in Winston-Salem’, while Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. The college that Hughes is speaking of in his poem is not Columbia University. It is the City College of New York located on the highest hill in Manhattan. Arnold Rampersad who edited Hughes’ Collected Poems has stated that the college that features in the prescribed poem is the City College of New York on his visit to the CCNY during its 30th annual Langston Hughes Festival.
The title of the poem suggests a theme for English B. The mention of an English B underlines the existence of an English A, that renders the English A default-the standard one. And the question arises for the need for an English B. The instructor in the class asks the student to go home and write a page. The only requirement is that the page must come out of the writer; it is only then that it will be true or ‘genuine’.Such a stance goes against the New Critics who divorced the author from the text; and stated that the text is autonomous. The poet stresses the role of the author in building up not only the meaning of the text, but its truth value as well. The speaker wonders how simple that is.
He is just the age of 22. His thought process might not be as true as the instructor thinks it to be, because his experience of the world is limited to his young age. Neither is his learning experience restricted to a particular area to be put to pen because he ”went to school there, then Durham, then here to this college on the hill above Harlem.” To top it all, he was the only colored student in the class–the minority. The speaker judges that his view may not be termed as the truth if it is not politically correct or does not conform with the majority. His being the only colored one also makes him the odd one out. He then mechanically puts in words his journey from college to his home:
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:
The speaker reiterates that at 22, it is not easy to judge what is true for one person. Moreover, truth is sometimes subjective and may vary according to one’s consciousness. He ruminates whether he is the person he apprehends through the sensory perceptions. He communicates with Harlem, the abode of the Black Renaissance. He hears Harlem and Harlem hears him back. He puts within brackets that he hears New York too. There is a certain secrecy in that being bracketed,as though he is afraid to claim it openly. However, the city of New York does not identify his existence: “(I hear New York too.) Me—who?”
He is no different from his counterparts in that he likes to eat, sleep drink an be in love; or likes to “work, read, learn, and understand life.” Being an African American, he is no different from other races and strives for equality. He likes a sophisticated present as a pipe for a Christmas present. Or likes music like other cultured folk –“ records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.” Bessie and Bop was listened to by the coloured people and ‘Bach” by the white people. So what he aspires for is a culture that is a fusion of both.
His being colored does not make him ‘NOT’ like the same things that other folks do who are from other races. The capitalization of ‘NOT’ and the emphasis on double negative points to his positivity and the negation of such a hypothesis.
He puts forth a rhetorical question whether his page will be colored when he writes. He affirms that being him, it will not be white. But it will be part of the instructor who is white. The page here is a beautiful metaphor employed by the poet. The whiteness constitutes the aspect of being white, the writing over it symbolizes the quality of being coloured. Each lends meaning to the other and defines the other as the writing comes across on the page. Each one is incomplete without the other. Just as the color black defines White and vice versa. The written page therefore emblematizes the quality of being American, an America that stands for unity: ”That’s American.”
Sometimes the poet asserts that the instructor doesn’t want to be a part of him, and sometimes it is the other way around. But we are a part of each other-and THAT is the Truth. We imbibe meaning and impart each other with value as we learn from each other. Though the instructor appears to be all that the speaker is not:
and somewhat more free.
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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