Analysis of the Poem "Theme for English B"
Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes wrote a number of famous poems. "Theme for English B" is one of his best-known, addressing race relations from the point of view of a 22-year-old African-American university student in the early 20th century. The poem's themes include race, place and the relationship between a student and teacher. Consider these factors in addition to rhyme, meter, language and symbolism in an analysis of the poem.
The speaker of "Theme for English B" is a college student, but he is not Langston Hughes. Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, not in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as the poem says. He wrote the poem in 1946 and read it to audiences in Winston-Salem. The poem is set in an earlier time, likely the 1920s, when Hughes moved to Harlem in New York City and joined the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American art and cultural movement in the early 20th century.
The speaker mentions that he is "colored" four times. He lives at the Harlem YMCA and attends the "college on the hill above Harlem," which could refer to the City College of New York or Columbia University. He says, "I am the only colored student in my class." He refers to paper and his instructor as "white," but also mentions "other races," so it is likely the other students in the class were not all white.
Hughes uses a different rhythm in the third stanza when the speaker explains the things that he likes. The rhythm is similar to jazz music. He compares what he has in common with his older white instructor, including getting a pipe as a Christmas gift and records including "Bessie, bop, or Bach." Bessie refers to Bessie Smith, "Empress of the Blues" in the 1920s. Bop is a style of jazz also popular at that time, and Bach refers to the classical composer.
Rhyme and Structure
Parts of "Theme for English B" rhyme and parts do not. The poem has a similar form to a college English essay. The assignment comes first: "Go home and write/a page tonight. And let that page come out of you/then it will be true." The speaker asks, "I wonder if it's that simple?" The rest of the stanza in his voice, which is African-American, does not rhyme. The poem concludes with rhyming lines which end with "me" and "free," and the last line: "This is my page for English B."
Amy Sterling Casil is an award-winning writer with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Chapman University in Orange, Calif. She is a professional author and college writing teacher, and has published 20 nonfiction books for schools and libraries.