Analysis of the Poem "Theme for English B"
Imagine being the only African-American student in your English class in a time when people of different races weren't treated as equals. That's the situation in Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B," a poem that reveals the speaker's struggle to interpret an assignment from his white instructor. Throughout the poem, the speaker wrestles with the meaning of truth and whether two people as different as they are can view it the same way.
In poetry, tone is the speaker's emotional attitude toward the subject matter. At the beginning of "Theme for English B," the speaker uses an uncertain, questioning tone to describe the teacher's assignment to write a page about himself, asking if he can really produce something "true" since he's so different from the other students. However, the tone gradually becomes more assertive as he describes his struggle as a minority student and interests. By the end of the poem, he feels free to directly confront the differences between him and his teacher and the potential fallacies in the assignment.
"Theme for English B" is a persona poem, a poem narrated by a particular character. Hughes includes great detail in describing his character's background, interests and attitudes. The speaker begins by sharing that he is originally from the South and began college there, but now has moved to his current school in Harlem. This reveals the speaker's drive for education, but also alludes to struggles with race that may have driven him north. The speaker also shares his passions and interests, such as knowledge and music. By the end of the poem, readers have a clear view of the speaker's identity and goals.
Stream of Consciousness
"Theme for English B" is written in a stream-of-consciousness style, a narrative technique meant to mirror the passage of thoughts through the mind. Hughes uses this technique to reflect the speaker's train of thought as he writes his paper. Throughout the poem, the speaker moves from describing his past to his present journey to class each day to the activities and interests that describe him. This free-writing style eventually leads him to address the similarities and differences between him and his teacher and open communication about their differing views of "truth."
Ultimately, "Theme for English B" addresses the commonalities that exist in spite of prejudice. The speaker states that regardless of race, both he and his white instructor are Americans -- even if they don't always want to recognize their similar identity. In spite of their gap in age, race and economic status, however, the speaker wants to learn from the instructor, but also believes the instructor can learn a lot from him. According to lesson activities from Houston Independent School District, the poem shows that cultural differences often keep people from discovering how similar they are.
Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.